Venezuela's Chávez Takes a Mighty Swing at Golf

Pascual Cicenia, 23, plays golf at the exclusive Caracas Country Club. President Hugo Chávez has called golfers lazy.
Pascual Cicenia, 23, plays golf at the exclusive Caracas Country Club. President Hugo Chávez has called golfers lazy. (By Juan Forero -- The Washington Post)
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By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 10, 2009

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Every day, Pascual Cicenia plays golf on an emerald course that is 18 holes of tropical heaven in the middle of this chaotic city. He doesn't take it for granted, he said, especially now that President Hugo Chávez has disparaged the sport as an elitist endeavor with few friends in his populist government.

"You can get into the golf course in about five minutes. You can get in a round of golf just about every day," gushed Cicenia, 23, taking a break last week as he practiced his 155-yard drives. "It's probably why he wants to take it away."

Chávez did not directly vilify this course, the Caracas Country Club, Venezuela's most exclusive and a citadel of the country's wealthiest families. But in a televised outburst against golf, Chávez criticized the sport as "bourgeois," mocked golfers as lazy and said that "there is no justification for a golf course in the middle of a city."

In the name of the socialism he's fast implanting in Venezuela, Chávez has nationalized scores of businesses over nearly 11 years in power, including oil multinationals and cattle farms. The government has initiated plans that could lead to the takeover of two of Venezuela's best-known courses, which golf enthusiasts point out would leave only 20 functioning courses in a country more than twice the size of California.

It's an argument unlikely to sway a revolutionary.

"I respect all the sports, all of them, but there are sports and there are sports," Chávez said, wearing his trademark green military-style suit and facing supporters attending his national television show this summer. "Can someone tell me, 'Is this a sport of the people?' "

"Noooooo," government ministers and other officials in the audience dutifully replied.

"It is not," Chávez concluded.

The assault on golf had international repercussions, of sorts. Philip J. Crowley, calling himself the U.S. State Department's "self-appointed ambassador-at-large for golf," told reporters in Washington that he is protesting Chávez's "unwarranted attack" on the sport.

"Once again," Crowley said, "Mr. Chávez, one of the hemisphere's most divisive figures, finds himself out of bounds."

At the Caracas Country Club on a recent day, several avid golfers got together for breakfast at the Soda Fountain, a restaurant where attentive waiters serve strong coffee as members enjoy views of the placid greens beyond.

Jonathan Coles, a businessman, has been golfing since childhood and now plays a full 18 holes three times a week. He said he couldn't fathom the sport falling to what Chávez calls his Bolivarian revolution.

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