Venezuela: A Geographic Narrative Survey

In tonight's game recap thread there was a mention of Guillermo Moscoso and Miguel Cabrera hailing from the same "town" in Venezuela. In the course of replying to that, it occurred to me that AN might be interested in a somewhat rambly and somewhat baseball-related sketch of Venezuela, so as to have a better idea of the place names there. I'm writing this stream of consciousnessly without a lot of research, so don't expect encyclopedic coherence, but hopefully it will be interesting and leave you knowing more than you did before.

Napoleon said that the key to any nation is its geography, a sentiment echoed by my favorite historian, Fernand Braudel. (What, you don't have a favorite historian?) The continent of South America is defined by its mountains, and so too is the country of Venezuela. Here is a map I found on the Web somewhere. The title of the website is "Free Printable Maps" so I assume that means it's OK for me to copy it here.

The big brownish area in the southeast is the Guiana Highlands. They are a strange sort of mountains which technically are not mountains at all. They are what geologists call a craton, an unusually stable piece of earth's crust which has survived intact while other bits all around it have merged and rifted and eroded and all those other things that the ground does over many millennia. The result is that the Guiana Highlands are an area of table-top mountains with high flat tops and lots of sudden cliffs. Angel Falls, the highest waterfall in the world, is somewhere in there.

Angel Falls, by the way, are not named after any heavenly being nor any baseball player wearing an ugly red uniform. They were named for Jimmie Angel, an American aviator who discovered them some time in the 1930s. A few years later he went back and tried to land at the top, but he crashed his little plane. It was a minor crash and everyone survived, but they had a very long and difficult walk back to civilization. The plane remained there until 1970 when it was removed to be reassembled in a museum in Maracay, the city where Guillermo Moscoso and Miguel Cabrera are from.

Venezuela's other mountains are in the northwest. This time it's a proper mountain range, a spur of the Andes, extending from Colombia and petering out into a range of hills along the coast. These hills, as we shall soon see, define where most of the population of Venezuela actually lives. The big green area between the two mountain areas is the Orinoco valley. The Orinoco is a big river with lots and lots of tributaries that make it into a big flat wet floodplain, sort of a miniature version of the Amazon. (But the Amazon is so ginormous that even a miniature version is still quite big.)

Venezuela south of the Orinoco is one of the wildest places in the world. Vegetatively it is rain forest, sort of the like the Amazon, but protected; topographically it has the ridiculous high cliffs we were talking about. The Orinoco Delta is a huge swampy area, more water than land. The north side of the Orinoco valley is a bit more settled, but it's still pretty sparse.

Here's another free map, this time from Wikipedia, showing the cities and states.

The big double line through the middle is indeed the Orinoco River. The other lines are not rivers; they are borders between the states. Although population is not shown, you can get an idea from the size of the states where all the people live. The big states are the empty ones, and the little ones are the densely populated ones. If you remember topographic map above, you'll notice that the population follows that hilly extension of the mountain range. This is no coincidence. Venezuela is in the tropics. Down in the flatlands it is muggy and hot. Up in the hills, it's still muggy and hot, but in a nicer way. That mountain range is actual two parallel ridges. Moving inland and westward from Caracas (the capital; that's why it's in capital letters), settlement is on both outer slopes and especially in the valley between. Moving east from Caracas, settlement mostly follows the coast.

One anomalous area of Venezuela is in the far west, where Maracaibo is. Around the large Lake Maracaibo — they call it a lake but it's really more like a big bay or lagoon — is another flat plain. (You can see this on the first map.) Although there are plenty of roads connecting it now, for most of its history the Maracaibo area was geographically separate from the rest of Venezuela, so in that sense it's sort of like the west coast of the United States. Unlike California, the Maracaibo area is not particularly fertile. It does, however, have oil reserves, which helped to catapult Maracaibo to the Venezuela's second city.

Carlos González is from Maracaibo. People from Maracaibo and its environs are called "Marabinos". (If I knew why I would tell you, but I don't.) That's how we came to call him the "Marabino patrol craft" for a bit. Some other Marabinos in baseball are Wilson Alvarez and Jhoulys and Gustavo Chacin.


In terms of baseball, you can throw out the whole bottom 80% of Venezuela, including the four southernmost cities on the map, and just look at that band of urbanization following the hilly ridge plus Maracaibo. The eight other cities on the map do not exactly match the eight teams of the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League but they're pretty close. When you hear about someone playing "winter league" in Venezuela, they're talking about the LVBP (for the acronym, the words are rearranged Spanish-wise). The LVBP plays a 63-game season from October to December with playoffs in January. The league champion gets to play in the Caribbean Series, a four-way tournament for the top teams from Venezuela, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic.

Baseball not only follows urban settlement, it also follows American influence. The story of baseball in Latin America — by which we really mean in the Caribbean — is the story of American commerce. That, incidentally, is the answer to why we have lots of baseball in Cuba, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic, but little or none in Haiti, Jamaica or Guatemala. (It's also why what little baseball there is in Colombía is focused entirely in the cities of the north coast near Venezuela, with practically none at all in the rest of the country.) Early in the 20th century, Americans invested heavily in Venezuela, creating strong commercial links. Americans and Venezuelans who went back and forth between the countries took a seed from America's baseball tree and planted it in Venezuela's fertile soil.

The five largest cities in Venezuela, all shown on the Wikipedia map, are Caracas, Maracaibo, Valencia, Barquisimeto, and Maracay. (This link should jump back to the map, if you need another look. Then click your browser's "back" button to return here.) Each has a team in the eight-team LVBP. Of those five teams, only one team is named for the city, los Leones del Caracas ("Caracas Lions"). The Leones, the oldest team, used to be called the Cervecería Caracas, which loosely translates to the "Brewers". The new name reflects the city's full name, which is "Santiago de León de Caracas". People from Caracas are called "Caraqueños", by the way, which makes more sense than "Marabino". There are many Caraqueños in MLB, including Ramón Hernandez and Omar Vizquel.

Like the Rockies and Diamondbacks, the teams in Maracaibo, Barquisimeto and Maracay are named for their states rather than their cities. They are, respectively, los Águilas del Zulia ("Zulia Eagles"), Cardenales de Lara ("Lara Cardinals"), and Tigres de Aragua ("Aragua Tigers"). If you're still looking at the Wikipedia map (jump back), you might think that Maracay is in a very tiny state, but actually that's a flaw in the map. That little circle is in fact Lago de Valencia, a large lake with Maracay on the east and Valencia on the west. The state of Aragua on the Wiki map is actually the area to the right where the word "Maracay" appears.

To the left is the state of Carabobo, which the team in Valencia seemingly ought to be named after but isn't. They are simply los Navegantes de Magallanes ("Magellan's Navigators") with no place name at all. Another Carabobo city shown on the map, Puerto Cabello, does not have a team, but it's a city with a strong baseball tradition. Pablo Sandoval and Carlos Zambrano are from there.

A sixth team is los Tiburones de la Guaira ("La Guaira Sharks"). Caracas is about 20 miles from the coast, and La Guaira is its port city. Although it really is a separate city, it's close enough that you can think of it as a second Caracas team, sort of like the Yankees and the Mets.

The last two teams were expansion teams added in 1991, both in the east, though one wasn't originally. The Caribes de Anzoátegui play in Puerto la Cruz, which you can see on the map (jump back). They were originally called the Caribes de Oriente ("Caribs of the East"). The Caribs were an indigenous people who used to live in the area, and whom the Caribbean Sea was named after, so I supposed that's sort of like naming a team the "Indians".

The other expansion team was originally located in Cabimas, on the eastern shore of Lake Maracaibo; then later moved to Acarigua, a medium-sized city between Barquisimeto and Valencia; then finally went east to la Isla de Margarita, the large island you can see just north of Cumana on the Wiki map. With the latter move, the team was renamed los Bravos de Margarita, usually translated "Margarita Braves" except that there is no native American connotation in the word "bravos". In Spanish (or Italian) history, a bravo is a sort of private soldier with a reputation for daring and rough belligerence. (That's being kind. In the literature I know, the bravi are thugs, but I suppose you could say that about raiders or buccaneers, too.) Margarita Island is something of a touristy area, which nice beaches, shops, and so forth.

Speaking of islands, they don't show on the Wikipedia map, which shows Venezuela only, but on the topographic map you can see a few islands off the northwestern coast (jump back to first map). The one just right of "Venezuela" on the map is Aruba, and the one a bit further right from that is Curaçao. Both islands were Dutch colonies and are currently in some sort of semi-autonomous relation with the Netherlands. They have some baseball there, too. Sidney Ponson is from Aruba. In 2003 he was granted the Order of Orange-Nassau, which is a sort of Dutch knighthood, so I guess he's "Sir Sidney" now. Andruw Jones and Jair Jurrjens are from Curaçao. "Andruw" is not just a crazy misspelling like "Jhonny"; that's the normal way to spell Andrew in Dutch.

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