The children were laid out on the floor of the hospital.
That’s what hit me right off the bat.
And it wasn’t just one or two children, either. It was dozens of them.
This was a few years ago, in December, right around the holidays. I had decided to visit a children’s hospital near where I was raised in Valencia, Venezuela, to hand out toys to the kids and distribute clothes for their parents. As soon as I walked through the door to the emergency triage area, I wanted to cry.
There were IVs and bags of liquid medicine on the ground. Babies were screaming. Some of the older children, the toddlers, were moaning in pain. Doctors and hospital workers were stepping over little kids like it was nothing, like they were pieces of garbage.
It was human suffering on a scale that you hardly ever witness in person.
And it’s the type of image that you can never forget — the kind of thing that shows up in nightmares or comes into my mind sometimes when I’m all alone. It just pops up, and I’m not sure why. And then it’s all I think about for the next day or so … just the vision of those kids on that cold floor.
The closest comparison I can make is to animals on the highway. Roadkill. That’s what I was reminded of when I set foot in that hospital. Since food had become more scarce, and people could not get the medicine they needed for their sick children, the place was overrun with patients. There weren’t enough beds, so they had to use the floor.
That scene will stick with me forever, but I’ve been thinking about it even more during the past year because of what I know about the current conditions in my home country.
Since I visited that hospital, things in Venezuela have gotten worse. Much worse. It is now far more difficult for people in my country to get the food they need to feed themselves and their children. Medical supplies are now more limited in supply. As people scratch and claw to try and survive, violent crime has become more common.
So I keep thinking about how everything I saw on that day — the kids moaning, the inhumane conditions, the hopelessness — was before things got really, really bad.
One of the most tragic, devastating and disheartening situations I could ever imagine … is very likely to be far worse now.
The thought I can’t get out of my head is this: What’s happening to the kids at that hospital now?
How bad is it?
That’s what everyone always asks me.
“Francisco,” they say, “what’s the latest from Venezuela? How are things there?”
For me, it’s tough to even put into words. Words, in this case, can’t really sum up what is happening in my country.
The last time I was back was a year and a half ago. And every time I land in Caracas, I find myself asking so many questions. I can’t understand how a country with so much oil, and so much money, can look and feel so poor.
As those who have visited Venezuela know all too well, as soon as you touch down and walk into the airport, the first thing you notice is that the power’s out. There’s no electricity, no air conditioning. So that’s your welcome into the country. For me, it’s nothing. I’m used to that. But as I make the 100-mile drive from Caracas to my hometown of Valencia, something comes over me. I just start getting very depressed. There is so much poverty and despair.
You have to understand, Valencia is not some small town filled with dirt roads. It’s the third largest city in the country. My hometown is bigger than Dallas, and Philadelphia, and most other large cities in America. More than two million people live in Valencia, and many of my country’s top corporations are headquartered there. When I was growing up, the place was booming. But now, seeing the rundown housing, and boarded-up buildings, and the thousands of people living on the streets … it breaks my heart. All of it.
Imagine growing up in Phoenix or Charlotte, and watching skyscraper after skyscraper go up, only to return 20 years later to see, everywhere you look, burned-out storefronts and children digging in the trash to find food.
Once I get to my town, my family and friends are so happy to see me. But it’s only a matter of time before the conversation turns to how they are doing. At that point, they just pour their hearts out to me.
“We cannot find food, Francisco.”
“We can’t get medical supplies.”
“My daughter was very sick, and we could not go to the hospital because we don’t have enough money.”
One of the things you hear from everyone down there is that you cannot get sick in Venezuela if you are middle class or below, because it’s almost impossible to get the treatment and medicine you need. When you go to the pharmacy to buy medicine, you have to provide a fingerprint on a little machine that keeps track of who is making purchases. And if you need more, you have to wait until the following week. If you try to purchase it sooner, they will turn you away.
Getting food can be even more difficult.
When you go to the supermarket, there are long lines of people waiting all day to buy necessities like milk and sugar. Then, when you finally do get to the front of the line, you don’t have any choice. There’s only one brand available, and the prices are often very high. So you may not even be able to afford what you waited in line all day to buy.
When I’m back home, we sit around and talk about things like that for hours on end, and then … we sit around and talk about them some more. We cannot go out. We can’t spend a nice evening together at a restaurant, or go to a park to relax. It’s just too dangerous. It’s too big a risk.
If you ask any person from my country, they’ll tell you they know at least one family member or friend who has been a victim of crime during the past few years. This one family I know was waiting in the parking lot of their building when a group of guys drove up, took them upstairs, and stole everything in their apartment.
A few years ago, one of my former teammates with the Yankees got robbed in his own home. They tied his hands behind his back, tied up his whole family, and then took everything they could grab.
Those sorts of things are common in my country at the moment. That’s the everyday way of life. It’s normal.
If you do go out, you basically have to drive a car with bulletproof windows. If you can’t afford one, you risk being shot at or carjacked. And there are also these guys on motorcycles now who will drive up next to your car, break your window, point a gun in your face, and then demand that you hand over your cellphone. If you don’t, they will kill you.
What makes things worse is that you can’t really trust the police there, because you’re always scared that they are going to mistreat you or steal your things. You have to just take whatever precautions you can on your own. It’s basically you against the criminals.
So, when I go back home, we just stay in the house. We talk. And we cry. And we daydream about a country where people are safe, and happy, and have hope for the future.
Every morning when I wake up, the first thing I do is look at my cellphone. And every morning, it is just overflowing with photos and text messages and social media posts from back home.
The people who are the future of my country — the youth, the students — they’re out there protesting in the streets each day. They’re getting killed and sacrificing their lives for a better Venezuela. (By the most recent count, 49 people have died during uprisings against the government). They rally, and they march, and they fight for change.
For those of us in America, it’s just video after video filled with images that break your heart. There are people getting run over by armored vehicles, or students getting teargassed until they can no longer breathe. And then there are scenes like this one:
Things like that affect me. And I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that it’s a constant. It’s not two hours a day or three times a week. This is all day for me, every day. And it’s the same for my teammates from Venezuela. So if I don’t get the most updated information, Felipe Rivero gets it and tells me about it. Or José Osuna gets it and spreads the word. This is our every day, and it becomes very difficult to say, “This is enough for now,” or to log off for the night.
Then, while all that is happening, I’m getting pleas for help each and every day. I get messages in WhatsApp constantly: “I need this medicine, and I can’t get it.” Or, “We need food, Francisco. Can you help us?”
One of my best friends texted me just last week because he has a three-month-old daughter, and he cannot find the baby formula that she needs. I send boxes of supplies to my family and friends every chance I get, because otherwise they wouldn’t have what they need. And every time I do that, it reminds me of just how bad things have gotten.
I grew up being told that athletes cannot be involved in activism. Everyone said that to me from the time I was very little. I heard it again and again.
But I’m not a kid anymore.
And, you know what? I’ve grown tired of the view that because I’m a baseball player I cannot speak out or try to make things better. That’s crazy.
My people are being killed. My country is spinning out of control, our government is not providing for its citizens and is using violence to try and silence dissent … and you want me to keep quiet? You tell me that it’s not my place to speak out?
I am going to speak out. And, if I think it will help, I’m going to do more than just speak out. I’m going to try and lead.
A few weeks ago, when we were playing the Brewers in Pittsburgh, I met with Hernan Perez and we came up with the idea for a social media video.
We wanted to let the world know that our people are being killed and that the conditions in our country are inhumane. So we started calling players. Twelve guys said they’d do it, so we posted that video with those 12 guys. And it just took off. Then other players started following suit and posting their own videos.
It was just a start, of course. But someone has to kick things off, and now more and more people of all backgrounds are feeling empowered to speak out.
This is not about politics. It’s about people dying, and children in misery, and human beings who need help. And I want to be very clear that I am not speaking out as a baseball player. I’m talking as a Venezuelan citizen, born and raised. That is who I am. That is my heart.
I cannot just turn my back and say, “I’m an athlete, I can’t talk about this.”
I’m going to talk about what I know, about what I’ve seen with my own two eyes. If other players are willing to speak out, too, I think that would be great. But I’m not trying to tell anyone what to do, and I understand that people are scared that if they speak up something bad might happen to their family and friends back home.
That’s real. That happens.
I’m scared myself. I’m worried that someone might do something to my family. But if things don’t change, the conditions in my country are only going to get worse — more people will lose their lives, more children like those I saw on that December afternoon at that hospital in Valencia will suffer.
That’s real, too.
And we cannot simply wait around for change to happen on its own.
My people are being killed. My country is spinning out of control … and you want me to keep quiet? You tell me that it’s not my place to speak out? No!
On that note, I’d like to just take a moment to talk directly to the people of Venezuela — to my people.
I just want to say this: We have to keep going.
It sounds so simple, I know. But it’s important to say it clearly.
We cannot give up. We cannot just accept what is happening. We must keep pressing for change.
Now, I know that probably sounds ridiculous coming from a baseball player in America, so far away from the conditions on the ground. And I feel a little shame deep down, honestly, for saying that sort of thing to people who are out there putting their lives on the line and struggling every single day. But it’s just so critical that we all keep going — that we all do what we can, in every way we can.
And please know that there are people here in America, and all around the world, who are looking to help and support your efforts. We are here for you. We love you, we’re proud of you, and we too dream of a day when the people of Venezuela can breathe easy again, full of hope and promise of a brighter future for the country we love so dearly.
This is not a fight in only one place. It’s a fight everywhere. And it is one we simply cannot afford to lose.