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Nieve's thoughts turn home to Venezuela

Pitcher hoping friends and family remain safe amid protests

PHOENIX -- Though Fernando Nieve is thousands of miles away from his home country, his mind is not. And his heart is heavy.

Most of the A's pitcher's family members and several of his friends remain in Venezuela, where great political unrest has led to violent upheaval in recent weeks.

"It's getting bad out there," Nieve said Sunday afternoon. "I hope they can resolve this soon. There are two sides with different thinking, and I hope they can find the middle."

It's been nearly a year since Hugo Chavez passed away, and the president's handpicked successor, Nicolas Maduro, is being blamed for deteriorating economic conditions that have resulted in food shortages -- "We're rich in oil, poor in toilet paper and milk," says Nieve -- and spiraling inflation.

Anti-government demonstrators are demanding an end to these shortages, along with better security and protected freedom of speech. For weeks they've been on the streets, but it wasn't really until Feb. 12, when three of them were killed in the capital city of Caracas, did the movement gain global attention.

Already the death toll has reached double-digits, while more than a hundred injuries have been reported.

"Everyone's worried over there," said the 31-year-old Nieve, a non-roster invitee. "They're killing people on the streets every day it seems like. It's really tough. It seems you can't even walk on the streets because you don't want to get involved.

"But there's so many students on the streets because they want answers."

Nieve's parents and brother are safe in San Felipe, and they speak by phone every day -- more like "almost every hour," he said, smiling. His sister, who has three children, is a two-hour drive from them. Her family, too, is out of harm's way, but several of Nieve's friends are located close to grim scenes in the bigger cities of Caracas and Valencia.

On his iPhone are pictures he's received from them, images that reveal what Nieve describes as "a war out there."

"That's what it looks like, right?" he said, scrolling through them, each one worse than the last, smoke and fire filling the screen.

Then there's the video of police shooting into an apartment building -- taken by Nieve's friend right across the street from his own apartment structure.

"He's so close to it all," Nieve said. "He sees this all the time."

Yet those living through these protests are also the ones being kept in the dark about them, since local TV channels are providing almost no coverage of the unrest, according to Nieve. Instead, Venezuelans are turning to social media like Facebook and Twitter to swap information and images.

But even that has become difficult, as the nation's government is quietly taking measures to quell the goings-on in cyberspace by blocking web sites and, in some major cities, shutting off the internet altogether.

Nieve gets his news from apps on his iPhone, and also from his wife, Leticia, who is in Houston with their two young children. He was in Venezuela for nearly two months this winter, returning in December before this burst of sudden violence.

A handful of other A's players - infielders Alberto Callaspo and Jose Martinez and right-hander Jose Flores -- also call Venezuela home, and Nieve is hoping they'll join him Monday in posing for a picture and putting it on Twitter to show support for their country, as players with many other clubs have already done.

He left the A's clubhouse Sunday in search of a Venezuelan flag for the occasion.

"It's important for me to show our country that they have our support," said Nieve, who has held residency in the United States since 2005. "That's what this is about."

Missing from the photo will be A's infielder Darwin Perez, who has experienced much difficulty leaving Venezuela during this time. The U.S. Embassy sits in the middle of Caracas, which has made getting a visa tough. Perez is expected to finally get his this week and hopefully join the A's over the weekend, but nothing is guaranteed.

Perez was with the A's in camp last year and hit .313 in 14 games. The infielder went on to hit .237 with three home runs and 34 RBIs in 115 games for Double-A Midland.

"He made a good impression last year, and he's a winter ball guy so I don't think he'll be behind when he arrives," said manager Bob Melvin. "He was a very versatile guy for us. Last year we didn't have many outfielders and he ended up playing outfield. He was just trying to get in a game any way he could. He's a pretty spirited kid who likes to play. We're looking forward to getting him here."

The right-handed Martinez also reported late because of visa issues, nearly a week after pitchers and catchers held their first workout. As for Callaspo, he said Sunday his family was safe in Venezuela, but otherwise remained mum on the topic.

Jane Lee is a reporter for Read her blog, Major Lee-ague, and follow her on Twitter @JaneMLB.

Oakland Athletics, Alberto Callaspo, Jose Flores, Jose Martinez, Fernando Nieve