In Chávez country, US ambassador tries baseball diplomacy

He's been warned against such provocations.

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.

Chávez retorted, on national TV, that Brownfield was creating problems in order to give Washington a pretext to invade the country. "Start packing your bags, mister. If you keep provoking us ... I'll throw you out of here," he warned.

Brownfield is a "mischief-maker," says Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a Washington think tank. "His behavior is inappropriate. He is resorting to theatrical actions in order to undermine the regime."

Barinas fruit vendor Geronimo Diaz agrees. "Since when does the mighty US give out baseballs?" he asks. "Do they think they will buy us that easily?"

But Otto Reich, the State Department's top Latin America official from 2003 to 2004, says it's clearly Chávez's government orchestrating the violence and protests. "Other than with Iran or North Korea, with whom we don't even have relations ... nothing has reached such a low level," says Mr. Reich, who also served as US ambassador to Caracas in the 1980s. "Chávez cannot allow Brownfield to move around the country peacefully. He needs to use him as an example of what can happen if anyone steps out of line or presents an alternative view."

In Barinas, in southwestern Venezuela, that different view was gamely put on display. Wearing a University of Texas Longhorns baseball cap - and trailed by a dark-suited US security guard and three bulky members of Venezuela's secret service - Brownfield cut the ribbon on the newly painted, US-funded little league stadium. In fluent Spanish, he cheerily told the 5- and 6-year-olds - in new US-funded uniforms - that "we are all winners in baseball." He threw out a rather impressive fast ball for a 53-year-old diplomat, smiled for photos, and made a beeline to the airport.

"What I am doing is getting a positive, alternate message out.... Venezuelans have been receiving a single anti-American message," says Brownfield. "Our counter to that is we are not a bad people. We have good and similar values."

Local officials, including Hugo de Los Reyes Chávez, the president's father and governor of Barinas state, were informed of Brownfield's visit. All stayed away.

The embassy's protocol office sends out letters at least a week in advance of any such trip, asking for official meetings. Often, Venezuelan officials write back to say that unfortunately, they will be out of town that day. Other times, they don't write back. Brownfield has not met with a single Chavista governor, mayor, or other high-ranking official in a year, according to the US Embassy.

There are other job minuses. Brownfield's security detail has been beefed up, he has Washington peering over his shoulder more nervously now, and his naval attaché was expelled in February for alleged spying (the US responded by ousting the Venezuelan ambassador's chief of staff). But even the fact that his wife has been posted halfway around the world as US ambassador to Manila doesn't seem to take the lilt out of his voice. "That was a great afternoon, players," he bellows, waving his good byes.

And, once in a while, Brownfield scores. Edgar Opita, a 5-year-old centerfielder in Barinas, tugs at the suit jacket of the departing ambassador's aide. "This is my new and excellent glove," he gushes. "Do you want to play?"

Danna Harman is Latin America bureau chief for The Christian Science Monitor and USA Today.

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