Hugo Chavez and Yewri Guillen are two dead Latin Americans who, although they never knew each other and came from different countries, are deeply connected.
Yewri Guillen was an 18-year-old Dominican who died in April 2011, just as he was to be sent to the US minor leagues. He was signed as a prospect by Major League Baseball’s Washington Nationals franchise for $30,000. While this is certainly a significant amount of money, it pales in comparison to what the Nationals paid to US born prospect Bryce Harper at about the same time — a cool $6 million. Upon signing at 16, Guillen was whisked away to one of the baseball academies affiliated with Major League Baseball and their franchises that dot the Dominican landscape. Prospects ate, slept and breathed baseball as there were no schools or academic classes made available by the teams.
Then, Yewri began suffering painful headaches, for which he was given tea and aspirin by academy personnel. During his time at the Nationals’ Dominican facility, he never saw a doctor or a certified trainer because none were employed at the premises.
When the symptoms worsened, Guillen’s family could not afford the fee to enter him at the best local private hospital because his MLB contract wasn’t finalized. As his sickness progressed, the Nationals franchise chose not to cover his hospital costs. He was diagnosed with bacterial meningitis but it had progressed too significantly for anything to be done.
After his death, the family had to sign an agreement pledging not to sue over the lack of certified trainers or doctors that likely could have diagnosed his illness when it was treatable. In exchange, the team finally released Guillen’s signing bonus and insurance money to the family.
The tragic story of Yewri Guillen is an example of what the Chavez government sought to eradicate in the recruitment of Venezuelan ballplayers.
Venezuela is home to much top baseball talent including Miguel Cabrera – the first Latin American to win the Triple Crown, 2012 World Series MVP Pablo Sandoval and seven others that appeared in the 2012 World Series.
Yet for all of the top tier talent available, only five teams have set up academies in Venezuela. This is primarily due to the safeguards instituted by Chavez’s government. In Venezuela, if a player is signed before age 18, the government must approve the contract to ensure the youth is receiving a fair deal. Signing bonuses are taxed at a 10% rate to compensate Venezuela for producing such elite talent that will make American baseball owners fabulously wealthy. The Chavez initiatives also require schooling/education for prospects in a meaningful way and a guarantee for health care if a player is injured. These rules reflect Venezuela’s (and Chavez’s) desire to keep the worst aspects of MLB recruitment from infecting the country, recognizing the deeply rampant exploitation taking place in areas like the Dominican Republic, where MLB teams play on the financial desperation, the lack of government regulation, and the precarity of workers to ensure a steady pipeline of cheap talent.
After all, 97% of the players recruited in the Dominican Republic never make it as a professional, which makes their lack of educational opportunities even more problematic. Twenty-one of the 30 MLB teams that have academies in the Dominican Republic do not have certified trainers or doctors on staff. The lucky few prospects who make it through often receive significantly smaller signing bonuses than their American counterparts who are recruited by the same MLB teams.
Major League Baseball publicly proclaims that it abhors the politicizing of sport, and criticized Chavez on that basis during his lifetime. However, it would be much more accurate to say that MLB only dislikes politics that inhibit their laissez faire ability to make huge profits on the cheap in Latin American countries like the Dominican Republic.
Guillen’s and Chavez’s deaths highlight important issues. For Guillen, it shows the need for substantive and meaningful protects for MLB prospects in places like the Dominican Republic. Chavez’s death demonstrates the imperative need for fighting back against any policies that would weaken or dismantle the regulations that currently safeguard prospects from MLB greed in Venezuela.
As players take the field both in the games and in the uncertainly contentious politics of the post-Chavez world of Venezuela, it is important for those who stand for justice get ready to play ball.