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In Chávez country, US ambassador tries baseball diplomacy

By BY Danna HarmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 7, 2006


He's been warned against such provocations.

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But William Brownfield, the US ambassador to Venezuela, wearing his trademark red suspenders, boarded a morning flight recently to President Hugo Chávez's hometown. It would probably infuriate his host government. But a team of little leaguers was waiting.

As the increasingly hostile Bush and Chávez governments continue to one-up each other in the geopolitical big leagues, here, on the ground, a grittier game of tit-for-tat is unfolding - featuring Washington's relentlessly ebullient ambassador giving out free baseballs, and Chávistas lobbing insults and a chef's-salad worth of projectiles at him in response.

In Barinas on May 18, Ambassador Brownfield was not bombarded with vegetables or eggs. This time, his convoy wasn't hounded by thugs on motorcycles, and he didn't have to barricade himself in to avoid angry demonstrators. This was a good trip. On seven other occasions in the past 10 months, he has not been so fortunate.

His trials here reflect the fact that relations between the US and Venezuela, in a tailspin for more than six years, have never been worse. The Bush administration calls Chávez a threat to democracy in Latin America. The popular Venezuelan leader says US forces are preparing to invade his country.

Brownfield has met Chávez only twice, once formally to present his credentials upon arrival in December 2004, and a second time at a holiday celebration where they spoke for 35 seconds. "Next time, I hope to break that record and last for 36," Brownfield quips.

No one is betting on it.

Brownfield - a self-described star Little League shortstop who "retired from organized baseball at age 14" - says he isn't out to antagonize the Chávez government. Handing out baseball mitts and fixing run-down diamonds are actions taken by past US envoys to Caracas, he says. "Baseball," he likes to say, solemnly, "... is a passion we share."

"[This is] totally normal diplomacy," emphasizes State Department spokesman Eric Watnick. There are similar baseball bridge-building efforts in Cuba organized by private US groups.

But Brownfield's trips across the country have been raucous affairs. Last August, local officials threatened to close a stadium where he showed up in a poor Caracas neighborhood to announce a new US-funded youth baseball program. Later that month, a mayor in Yaracuy barricaded the entrance to a youth center to prevent Brownfield from launching a project there.

It got worse in December, when, in Nueva Esparta to give out baseball equipment, Brownfield was met with more than a hundred rock-throwing demonstrators. In March, in Guarico to hand out more bats and gloves, he was besieged by demonstrators who blocked his way for four hours. A visit to Cumana soon after was met with burning tires.

Events came to a head on April 7 at a Caracas baseball field, when Brownfield was chased out of the stadium, through traffic, and across town by motorcyclists pelting his car with fruits, vegetables, eggs, and rocks - and yelling, "Get out, gringo."

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called the attack "outrageous," and held Chávez's government responsible. "I guarantee you there will be some serious diplomatic consequences if we see this kind of attack again on our ambassador," he said.