September 14, 2009 / 4:51 PM / 11 years ago

Chavez takes class war to Venezuela's golf courses

* Chavez takes aim at “bourgeois” sport

* Pressure on golfers mirrors Venezuela’s social tensions

By Andrew Cawthorne

CARACAS, Sept 14 (Reuters) - At the Caracas Country Club, the clip of golf balls and chatter of birdsong contrast with the cacophony of city life beyond the palm tree-lined confines of one of Venezuela’s oldest and wealthiest clubs.

But golfers’ peace and quiet are under unprecedented threat since socialist President Hugo Chavez openly expressed his disgust for their “bourgeois” sport, which grew with the South American nation’s oil industry in the 20th century.

His diatribe, and the ensuing national debate over golf, are symptomatic of the polarization of Venezuelan society since Chavez came to power 10 years ago promising a revolution.

Drawing his popularity from the poor majority, Chavez has stirred class resentments with rhetoric reminiscent of his Cuban mentor Fidel Castro. In private, opponents use derisive, class-based terms too for Chavez and his supporters.

Of golf, Chavez declared recently in the city of Maracay: “I think it is a bourgeois sport and there’s no justification for having a golf course in the middle of a city where there is so much housing need for the people.

“Even though there are slums, you have 30 hectares so a little group of bourgeois and petit-bourgeois people can go and play golf ... They are so lazy, they use carts!” he mocked.

Although a lover of sports, especially baseball, Chavez’ comments brought into the open — and instantly politicized — the decline of golf facilities in Venezuela. Various courses have shut in recent years, and others may go the same way if authorities decide to put Chavez’ words into action.

The Venezuelan Golf Federation says the country has lost seven courses in the last few years, mainly those run by state authorities, including oil firm PDVSA, that have opted to put funds elsewhere or use the land for other things.

That leaves 23 courses around the country. Many of them were originally created for foreign oil workers.

MORE RADICAL THAN CASTRO

While declining to be drawn into a public spat with Chavez, golf federation president Julio Torres notes other socialist nations like China and Cuba are going the opposite way.

“Venezuelan golfers are feeling a bit of pressure and discomfort because of the closures,” he told Reuters.

“China, a partner of Venezuela and a communist country, has more than 300 courses, another 100 in construction, and about 300,000 golfers. Cuba is building more courses, for tourists.”

Given that Castro was famously photographed playing golf with fellow Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara in the early days of his rule, Chavez appears to have gone one step further than his mentor on this issue.

Denying golf was an exclusive game in Venezuela, Torres said clubs were making big efforts to popularize the sport by ensuring some courses were open to the public — 9 of the 23, he said — and running charitable training projects.

Back at the Caracas Country Club, 21-year-old administration student Alejandro Sequeira resents the “bourgeois” tag stuck on him and other friends who play golf.

“I’m a student, from the middle class, nothing special. Golf is not just for millionaires,” he said, teeing off onto manicured grass at the first hole.

“He (Chavez) is looking for an excuse to mess with the people he considers upper-class and elite. But many of the people playing golf are businessmen with links to the government. So they’re just insulting themselves really.”

Workers at the course, like 80-year-old caddy Carlos Mejia who has been dragging golf clubs for half a century, are horrified at the threat hanging over the sport in Venezuela.

Mejia said he and scores of others would have no other way to make a living, and he doubted if the soft soil under the Caracas course would sustain large-scale building anyway.

A few blocks away, though, where two unemployed friends were hawking electrical parts in the middle of traffic jams, there was less sympathy.

“Look, those rich people had power for decades, and they chose not to help people like us,” said Manuel Salerno, taking a break from trying to sell a few plugs.

“I don’t agree with the rhetoric of hatred, but I have to be honest — I don’t feel sorry for them. How can I?” (Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Kieran Murray)

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