Will Chavez's death bring baseball "sweatshops" back to Venezuela?

Chavez In case you don't pay even a cursory amount of attention to world news: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez died of cancer last week. The controversial (yes, I hate that euphemism too) leader was best known as the most visible figure in the South American socialist movement, largely due to his fondness for loudly and prominently criticizing the United States government in the harshest of terms. His death and political divisions in the country are likely to create quite a bit of turmoil in Venezuela as various factions strive to seize control in the vacuum of power, and Major League Baseball sits among those who will watch with intense interest in the future direction of the nation that boasts more major league players than anyone other than the U.S. and the Dominican Republic.

In recent years Chavez, a huge baseball fan, had been attempting to exert some control over MLB franchises' academy system in Venezuela. In particular, Chavez wanted to levy a 10% tax on MLB for the signing bonuses the players received, and require MLB to pay to educate the players and give them job training outside of simply playing baseball, as noted by Dave Zirin at The Nation just after Chavez's death:

He told MLB that they would have to institute employee and player benefits and job protections. He wanted education and job training, subsidized by MLB, to be a part of the academies. He also insisted that teams pay out 10 percent of players’ signing bonuses to the government. Chávez effectively wanted to tax MLB for the human capital they blithely take from the country.

MLB has responded to this just about exactly as you'd expect: the number of academies in Venezuela has shrunken from 21 to just five, and MLB officials have explicitly ruffled at the affront to their business model. "When you see certain industries that are being nationalized, you begin to wonder if they are going to nationalize the baseball industry in Venezuela," Lou Melendez, MLB's former vice-president of international operations, told ESPN back in 2007.

Because obviously, requiring that 16 and 17 year olds get the equivalent of a high school education is pretty much the same thing as nationalizing the operations of a Major League Baseball franchise.

As a result of Venezuela's attempt to regulate the academies in their country, more and more of MLB's operations in Latin America have shifted to the Dominican Republic, where the government is far more accommodating of MLB's interest (in fact, descriptions of the island often give me the vibe of an old style company town, only with less pretense). Those increased efforts often go as far as signing kids from Venezuela and whisking them off to the Dominican for training there. Ironically, on the day Chavez died, Mother Jones published a long, fascinating article on the reality of life in the Dominican Republic baseball academies.

The article focuses specifically on the case of Yewri Guillen, a young prospect in the Nationals' organization who died last year just before he was scheduled to come to the states. Guillen contracted bacterial meningitis, but by the time it was diagnosed it was too late to do anything. It's not clear from the article that his death was caused by the academies or that the Nationals bear any responsibility for it (though the extent to which they leave him on his own to seek care, not even ponying up a mere $1,300 admission fee at a hospital that he and his family could not afford, would be comical if not for, you know, the fact that it ended with a dead 16 year old), but the end result does underscore how fundamentally exploitable people on the impoverished island are. In exchange for absolving the team of any responsibility for Yewri's death (even though that wasn't settled fact) and agreeing not to sue for damages, Guillen's parents were paid his life insurance money and his $30,000 signing bonus.

In addition to recounting this lone heartbreaking story, author Ian Gordon exposes readers to what these unregulated baseball factories are really like. Far from the state of the art training facilities with fancy amenities I think American baseball fans might assume that teams are running, the camps are largely conducted in more modest facilities (Gordon calls the Nationals' camp at which Guillen trained a "Spartan training camp with cinder-block dorms) with few luxuries and almost no oversight. In fact, teams aren't even required to have athletic trainers or doctors on site, or even "reasonable medical supplies" as is required of all minor league teams in the United States, and the Mother Jones piece finds that only 9 of MLB's 30 teams have certified trainers at their Dominican facilities.

MLB's position on this borders on downright criminal. "Sometimes people have a negative reaction when things are imposed [on them]," said Rafael Perez, MLB's head of operations in the Dominican Republic. ""Some clubs are having a harder time than others. But they all have great intentions."

So this is the official position of Major League Baseball, then: Telling teams how much money they're allowed to spend on signing bonuses for amateur talent is a high priority that will be pushed as part of a CBA negotiation, but imposing standards on the franchise's workplaces in the Dominican Republic, even standards as basic as having proper medical personnel and equipment available, is too heavy handed.

This is not to say that the system as it exists is all bad for the tiny, poor island and its residents. Even the relatively meager signing bonuses that the top talents get is a lot of money by the standards of the deep poverty most of the population lives in, but that fact just underscores how easily exploited this pool of potential talent if for MLB. While the American public and government would never tolerate a system in which high school sophomores and juniors could drop out of school and go to work in Spartan conditions with a professional baseball team in exchange for a five figure signing bonus, that's a reasonably good deal in the Dominican Republic. At a minimum, it's a pretty safe bet that we would at least require the MLB teams to provide safe working conditions and something approximating a high school education off the diamond for the minors in their (hypothetical) employ.

Which is exactly what Venezuela had been attempting to do under Chavez in future years, but now it's unclear if the political situation will change under the new regime. With no clear line of succession for Chavez and a political culture that is, at best, young and unstable, there is likely to be turmoil and strife along the way to deciding who will lead the country in the near future, and in that climate it seems unlikely that continuing to push back against MLB will be a high priority for the government. Concerns over the ability to keep employees and officials safe will still play a role in determining how much direct involvement MLB teams are willing to have in Venezuela, but all the same, don't be surprised if MLB increases operations in the country once again in the coming years, particularly if the socialists lose power and/or the government opts to take a more Dominican like position towards MLB's interests.