No event on the sporting calendar gets Venezuelans more animated than the rivalry between the country's two largest baseball teams, the Lions of Caracas and the Navigators of Magallanes, based in Valencia. But this season's championship series had an extra and unexpected ingredient thrown into the mix: politics. During the seven-game series, fans displayed banners bearing the slogan "One, two, three. Electricity, water, crime. President you've struck out!"
Hugo Chávez, a huge Magallanes fan, wasn't at the games, but he was certainly watching. "How do they think they're going to strike out Chávez? They're the ones who have struck out," he said, visibly riled, on television on Thursday. Referring to his electoral victories, he declared, "I've struck them out 11 times, and I'll strike them out again." The opposition can claim only one poll victory a referendum in December 2007 against Chávez since he took office in February 1999.
But Chávez is indeed under pressure thanks to a growing list of domestic problems, especially the three brought up by the protest banner: power and water shortages and a rise in crime. He blames the shortages on a drought caused by El Niño. A report released at Christmas by a state electricity company predicted a national collapse within 120 days if drastic measures were not taken. And Venezuela is experiencing a crime wave, recording 14,467 murders and 518 kidnappings last year, a rise of over 40% from 2008.
To alleviate the water shortage, Chávez has turned to Cuba for "cloud-seeding" technology. He has also instituted unpopular water and electricity rationing to ensure that the country's hydroelectric dams are not drained before the rains come in June. State employees are being sent home at lunchtime, and factories are being forced to reduce hours by 20%. Chávez had to sack his recently appointed Electricity Minister after a chaotic first day of rationing in Caracas. As a result, the President's popularity has fallen sharply, from 62% last February to the mid-40s now.
And so the opposition felt it was an opportune time to raise the issue at the most-watched baseball game of the year where politics almost never rears its head. Over 60% of the country follows the sport, which has an audience that crosses social and political boundaries. "Usually, when a politician goes to the stadium and he's someone that people know is a fan, it doesn't matter what they think of him; no one bothers him," says Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, a political analyst at the Metropolitan University in Caracas and former president of the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League. Says Ivan Uzcategui, president of the student union at the University of Carabobo in Valencia and one of the instigators of the protests: "It seemed like a good moment to reach many more people, especially those who are distanced from what is going on."
Venezuelan TV stations, already cowed by government control of broadcasting licenses, were unsure about how to cover the protests at the game. There were suddenly no wide shots, and the camera essentially stopped panning the stadium and crowd. "The game looks like it was shot by Godard, with crazy, incomprehensible close-ups," a comment on a blog complained. Venevisión drew accusations of self-censorship when it appeared to cut away from shots showing the protest banner, which was placed behind home base. Nevertheless, chants of "Chávez, you've struck out!" could be heard above the commentators' nervous talk especially after the power momentarily went out in the stadium during the 9th inning. While the opposition protests at the games were greeted by general cheers, the Chavistas responded with their own banner: "Uh! Ah! Chávez No Se Va!" (Uh! Ah! Chávez isn't going anywhere).
Chávez does not attend ball games. Recalls Aveledo: "When I was president of the league, I always as a courtesy invited him to make the first pitch [of the season]. He always excused himself. He's done it at the [New York] Mets' stadium. But here? Never." Aveledo adds, "Since he's been President, he has never dared to go to a public baseball stadium. Why? Because he has become accustomed in these years to going to events with crowds of his own supporters. But to a crowd that hasn't been mobilized by anyone he wouldn't dare."
With National Assembly elections scheduled for September, opposition figures see the President's plummeting approval ratings as a chance to gain political momentum. Consultores 21, a local polling firm, estimates that opposition candidates would win 52% of the votes under the current circumstances. Momentum, however, is something the opposition has been very good at frittering away. With about half a dozen parties making up the loose Unity Table coalition, it has a long way to go just to reach consensus on key issues. The members of the coalition have yet to even decide on how to select candidates for office, with some favoring primaries and others preferring appointment by decree. Says Oscar Reyes, a political analyst at the Central University of Venezuela: "The opposition has a market, but we have yet to see whether they have a product to sell."
Chávez's team, Magallanes, lost the series 3-4, even though it was ahead going into the final games. But politically, Venezuela's President has "not struck out," says Reyes. "He's on two strikes and two balls, but he still has something up his sleeve." That something includes a new electoral law that will benefit Chávez's conglomerate United Socialist Parties of Venezuela in the September vote. Critics also accuse the government of gerrymandering shifting electoral boundaries in its favor. So for all the opposition's recent gains, everything comes down to that old aphorism "It isn't over till it's over."