LIMA (Reuters) - Venezuela's baseball team will not compete in the Pan American Games beginning this week, but some athletes who have escaped the country's economic collapse will play for their adopted home of Peru, host to the 18th edition of the regional multi-nation event that precedes the Olympics.
"I want a win to thank Peru for opening the doors to me," said Juan Casas, a 33-year-old former Venezuelan professional baseball player who now pitches for Peru. "I'll fight for it until my last breath."
Casas will be one of three Venezuelans representing Peru at the Pan American Games thanks to a law passed in May that provided fast track to citizenship for foreign athletes who represent the country in international competition. Four Venezuelans have also been hired as coaches for the team.
Their journey from aspiring baseball stars to penniless immigrants and back again - albeit in a different country - is the kind of success story sought by hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans who have fled to neighbouring countries to escape the hyperinflation, recession and shortages of basic goods at home.
Casas, who also plays first base and outfield, said helping Peru win a medal could shine a positive light on immigrants like him who face growing hostility as the local Venezuelan population swells to more than 800,000, nearly 3% of Peru's population.
The United Nations has estimated that the Venezuelan diaspora worldwide is now more than 4 million strong and growing.
The economic crisis that Venezuela's Baseball Federation cited for not being able to send the national team to the Games continues to push thousands more Venezuelans to emigrate every day.
"Because of the crisis, my family has completely split up," Casas told Reuters before a recent practice ahead of the start of the Games on Friday. "One (family member) is in Miami. Two in Bogota. Two in Venezuela, and I'm in Lima."
'IT'S A CATASTROPHE'
Casas said that thanks to baseball he has made a home for himself in Lima, where coaches a team of Japanese-Peruvian players.
Unlike in Venezuela, baseball is not big sport in Peru. Most Peruvians tend to grow up playing soccer or volleyball. But Venezuelan immigrants have brought Caribbean ways of life to countries like Peru, which spans the Pacific Coast, the Andes and the Amazon.
In Lima, Venezuelan stuffed corn patties called arepas are now as easy to find as anticuchos, the classic Peruvian street dish of beef-heart kebabs. Venezuelan musicians play salsa at local nightclubs, and the rapid-fire Spanish of Caracas is now heard across the capital.
Ernis Arias, one of the Venezuelan coaches for the Peruvian team, said before the arrival of Venezuelan players, local baseball thrived thanks to Peru's large Japanese-Peruvian community. Baseball is hugely popular in Japan.
"We rely on a lot of kids of Japanese descent. That's the bulk of our team. But these boys who are arriving (from Venezuela) are clearly going to contribute a lot because of their experience," Arias said. "It's a team that's going to put up a fight."
While Peru has welcomed talented Venezuelan athletes with open arms, it has tightened restrictions on other Venezuelan immigrants, who must now have a passport and secure a visa before arriving at the border.
According to an April Ipsos poll published in local daily El Comercio, 67% of Peruvians now see Venezuelan migration as negative, up from 43% a year earlier. Top concerns cited were jobs and crime, the poll found.
The influx of Venezuelans has pushed down wages in small businesses, as the average number of workers entering the labour market each year has tripled, according to local consulting firm Macroconsult.
"Xenophobia is an issue, not wanting Venezuelans here anymore," Casas said.
Regardless of how his team fares in the Games that run through Aug. 11, Casas is clear on his next move. As a Peruvian citizen, he plans to bring his 14-year-old daughter from Venezuela. "It's a catastrophe over there," he said.
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