When I was a graduate student in Caracas in the 1980s, some of my best memories were hanging out at the Estadio Universitario during the winter baseball season, when Venezuela’s Major League Baseball stars would come home to play for teams like the Leones and the Tiburones. I used my expired Chicago Sun-Times intern press pass to get into the clubhouse and chat up heroes like Ozzie Guillén (Was he crazy then too? my kids ask. Not as much, I tell them) and Andrés Galarraga. And it never occurred to anyone that these guys, revered as they were in Venezuela, could be the targets of pickpockets let alone kidnappers.
But that was a generation ago, unfortunately, and today Venezuela is awash in some of the worst violent crime the oil-rich South American country has ever experienced – the latest example being the armed abduction yesterday, Nov. 9, of Venezuelan MLB star Wilson Ramos, catcher for the Washington Nationals. Ramos, who at 24 just finished his rookie season and is already considered one of the Nationals’ best players, was at his mother’s house in the industrial city of Valencia southwest of Caracas, home for his winter ball stint with the Tigres of nearby Aragua state, when four men came and took him away at gunpoint. Ramos is the fourth MLB player in three years to be touched by kidnapping in Venezuela: three others have had close relatives abducted there, one of them killed.
Federal detectives in Venezuela said today they believe they found, in the town of Bejuma outside Valencia, the car used in the Ramos kidnapping. Venezuelan Justice & Interior Minister Tareck El Aissami said “the best specialists” were on the case. But the incident is sure to remind Venezuelans of how dangerous their streets have become. Venezuela in recent years has acquired a worse kidnapping rate, for example, than neighboring Colombia, where leftist guerrillas have made the crime a quotidian fact of life. Venezuela has a murder rate of more than 50 per 100,000 residents, one of the worst in the western hemisphere; in Caracas it’s 140 per 100,000 residents, making it the most dangerous city in South America, second in the hemisphere only to Juárez, Mexico, the deadliest in the world.
This could well be the issue that socialist President Hugo Chávez has to answer for most when he hits the re-election campaign trail next year. The former army paratrooper officer and anti-U.S. firebrand, who revealed over the summer that he is battling cancer, has done much to reduce the inexcusably high poverty (Venezuela has the hemisphere’s largest oil reserves) that existed when he took office in 1999. But critics say his leftist Bolivarian Revolution, despite benefitting from record-high crude prices, has failed on two crucial fronts: one, of course, being security, and the other being management of the economy, where power outages and food shortages have become commonplace.
Together, those factors have helped exacerbate a violent crime crisis that admittedly plagues the rest of Latin America, especially Mexico and Central America, as the region pays for centuries of neglect of police and judicial institutions. Granted, Venezuela’s problem pre-dates Chávez: well before he came to power, friends and relatives of mine had been shot (fortunately none fatally) in armed robberies from Caracas to Puerto la Cruz. But according to the Venezuelan Observatory on Violence, an NGO, murders per annum in Venezuela quadrupled during Chávez’s first decade in office, from 4,550 to 16,047, leaving it with a homicide rate of 54 per 100,000 residents in 2009. The Chávez government claims the rate was closer to 45 per 100,000, but even that would be more than eight times the U.S. level and still put Venezuela in the company of murder-racked Latin American countries like Guatemala.
More than 90% of Venezuela’s crimes still go unsolved. For all his revolutionary zeal, Chávez has in large part fallen to the same flawed, age-old penchant of other Latin America leaders: an inordinate emphasis on the military (Chávez is known for weapons-buying binges) and too little regard for developing modern police forces. As if mindful of the voter heat Chávez stands to face on security before next October’s election, El Aissami also said today that the country’s constabulary is undergoing major reform and restructuring that he promises will be “a point of reference for this kind of process in the eyes of the world.”
For the moment, when it comes to Venezuela, the world’s eyes are on Valencia, where it’s hoped that Ramos may have been the target of what’s known in other abduction-plagued countries like Mexico and Colombia as an “express kidnapping,” in which the victim is held for a short time for a relatively modest amount of money compared to other ransom kidnappings.
Still, it’s hard to believe that Venezuela’s baseball heroes will be as enthusiastic in the future about coming home in the off-season to regale their countrymen with their major-league talents. And, should Venezuela’s feckless political opposition actually get its act together next year, the country’s unabated violent crime could make fewer Venezuelan voters as enthusiastic about Hugo Chávez.