Golf In Cross Hairs Of Venezuela's President

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez has ordered the nationalization of the oil industry, steel and cement companies — even coffee roasters. Now, he could be taking aim at golf. He dismissed the sport as elitist this summer and has taken steps that could lead to the takeover of two courses. Some golfers are bracing for more.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Venezuela's president has taken control of some of its country's biggest industries since taking power a decade ago, and now Hugo Chavez wants to take over golf courses. He says the sport is elitist and he's taken steps that could turn golf courses into public parks.

NPR's Juan Forero takes us to the decidedly elite Caracas Country Club.

JUAN FORERO: In this chaotic city, the 18-hole Caracas Country Club is an oasis. Trees line the course on the east and west, and the lush towering Avila mountain range looms to the north.

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FORERO: It's the perfect escape for Pasqual Sesiena(ph), who tees off on a recent sunny morning. He plays here every day and he says he doesn't take it for granted.

Mr. PASQUAL SESIENA: You can get in a round of golf just about every day, so I mean, it's real nice. It's - that's probably why he wants to take it away.

FORERO: By he, Sesiena means populist President Hugo Chavez. On his TV show, Chavez didn't rail against this course, but he did take on golf.

President HUGO CHAVEZ (Venezuela): (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: Chavez said golf was a bourgeois sport.

President CHAVEZ: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: He also mocked golfers for using carts, saying they were lazy. And he said that having a golf course in the middle of a city cannot be justified. Golf courses, Chavez said, take up valuable land that could be used for housing.

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FORERO: Caracas is a city of interminable traffic jams, garbage-strewn streets and sprawling slums. Green space comes at a premium.

Mr. RAPHAEL CARRAETO(ph) (Carpenter): (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: That was Raphael Carraeto, a carpenter, and he sees the logic in taking over golf courses to create public parks.

Venezuela never really had a lot of courses, barely 30 when Chavez was first selected in 1998. Julio Torres is president of the Venezuelan Golf Federation. He says Chavez has made a mistake by labeling golf an elitist sport.

Mr. JULIO TORRES (President Venezuelan Golf Federation): Well, I think he's not informed properly about what golf is, how golf has grown in the world. There's over 300 golf courses in China, very getting close to half a million golfers in China. And then, even in Cuba, there's Varadero, it's a golf course that's been operating for at least 10 or 12 years.

FORERO: But in Venezuela, most courses do remain private and none is more exclusive than the Caracas Country Club. Opened in the 1920s, its 500 members are from some of Venezuela's wealthiest families.

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FORERO: In the mornings, before work, members swim in the outdoor pool and then they enjoy breakfast in the clubhouse with its sweeping views of the greens. Jonathan Coles plays three times a week. On a recent day, he recounted how the government had seized many different kinds of companies.

Mr. JONATHAN COLES: Well, it's definitely happening to a lot of firms. But, you know, when you talk about a sport, how can you nationalize a sport? I mean, that would be the extreme of totalitarian government, wouldn't it?

FORERO: And Coles said that wouldn't be very sporting.

Juan Forero, NPR News, Caracas, Venezuela.

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