News & Opinion

Venezuela’s plight divides Vegas’ attention

JERSEY CITY, N.J. – It’s easy for U.S. residents to take for granted how our lives are so different from those in many other countries.  

The plight of those who are less fortunate is important, but for most of us it does not consume our daily thoughts.

For Jhonattan Vegas, his thoughts rarely stray from his family in Venezuela. His relatives live in constant danger in Vegas’ South American homeland, which is under the dictatorial control of socialist President Nicolas Maduro. Vegas has openly questioned Maduro’s legitimacy as the nation has been transformed from a prospering oil economy to a place of civil unrest and crime in the streets.

Vegas is playing this week for the International team that will meet the Americans in the Presidents Cup at Liberty National Golf Club. He will pair with Australia’s Adam Scott in today’s opening foursomes session, against Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar (http://bit.ly/2fzga5l).

Vegas recalled his childhood in Maturin, a city of 500,000 residents that lies 300 miles east of Caracas, in northeast Venezuela, as “amazing.”

“We didn't really have a ton growing up,” he said, “but I have two great parents that gave us everything they had and gave us a chance to be successful.”

At age 2, Vegas was introduced to golf by his father, Carlos, via a rudimentary lesson of hitting rocks with a broomstick. As a teen, he moved to Houston to escape his homeland’s growing political turmoil, refined his game under Venezuelan ex-pat pro Franci Betancourt, learned English and then played college golf at Texas, earning a degree in 2008. He turned pro that year and, after two seasons on the Nationwide Tour, earned a promotion to the PGA Tour.

Vegas has won three times and has earned more than $9.3 million.

While most golf observers would see those accomplishments as successful, Vegas is consumed by thoughts of his family in Venezuela: Carlos, 62, mother Nerys Marlta, 55, and brother Carlos, the oldest of four Vegas boys. Their safety remains in constant jeopardy. 

“My parents have been robbed,” Vegas said. “They broke into my house, at gunpoint. They held them hostage for several hours. My brother, too, his car, traveling and had a hostage, held hostage, almost got killed.”

Vegas has spoken publicly against the Maduro regime, which he thinks has made his family even more of a target.

Vegas’ family is in the U.S. for the Presidents Cup, but President Donald Trump’s administration has tightened restrictions on immigration and foreign visitors. Those policies make the Vegas family visits more difficult, Vegas said.

Ernie Els, an International assistant captain, empathizes with the Vegas family.

“We have had that in South Africa,” Els said. “Carjacking. My whole family has been held up. It's amazing how you adapt to whatever you're used to, but still it's just a crazy, unfortunate situation.”

Els approached Vegas in a practice round at the PGA Championship last month to offer support, but both concede that there is not much that either can do to help. Vegas lives in Houston and is far removed from the day-to-day issues of his homeland.

At 33, Vegas has built a successful career. With every success on Tour, his accomplishments are reported at home, providing more fodder for the thieves, which puts his family in greater jeopardy. 

“Pretty much every day you don't know what's going to happen to them,” Vegas said of his relatives, who intend to return to Venezuela in December. “You don't know if they're going to get robbed, kidnapped, everything in between. So, it's something really tough to deal with right now.”

Vegas wants his parents to visit more often, but immigration officials question the frequency of visits.

“Luckily enough, I'm on Tour and they have an excuse that they're coming to watch golf, but it's even more difficult with Venezuelans fleeing the country and coming to the U.S. illegally,” Vegas said. “It's getting harder and harder.”

Although Vegas has been granted U.S. permanent-residence status, commonly known as a green card, he is a Venezuelan first. He played for Venezuela in the Olympics last year and is the first golfer from his country to play in the Presidents Cup.

At the same time, Vegas believes it is his duty to speak out about the current government and its dictatorial actions in his homeland. He has tried through his foundation to support the hospital in Maturin but said the government has blocked efforts to import medical equipment or medicine.

“That's where I have all my greatest memories,” he said. “It's where my family lives. It's where I love to go back and spend time with my family. We're too good of a country to be in the position that we're in right now. As an athlete, I feel like the little power that I have, I try to use it to make the world aware of what's happening. Hopefully, we can get something positive to happen there.” 

Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: alex@morningread.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli