NBA part of visit to Venezuela

Updated: June 15, 2011, 3:18 PM ET
Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- Memphis Grizzlies guard Greivis Vasquez is in Venezuela this week as part of a State Department "sports diplomacy" effort at a time of icy relations between the two countries.

Vasquez, a Venezuelan citizen, is teaming with former NBA player Darvin Ham and former WNBA player Kayte Christensen to hold basketball clinics for kids and meet with local sports officials.

"We want to help young kids understand life is more than basketball. It's more than sports," Vasquez said in a telephone interview from Venezuela on Wednesday. "I want kids to understand that with hard work, everything is possible."

He said he had approached the U.S. embassy in Caracas when renewing his visa about doing some work for the community.

Vasquez declined to comment on whether the trip could help relations between the two nations.

"I'm an athlete. I don't have any connection with the politics at all," Vasquez said. "It's a good sport to unite people. ... The political side I can't control."

Venezuela's foreign minister said last week that relations between the two countries are frozen, and his government sees no possibility of improving them. That came after the U.S. imposed sanctions on Venezuela's state oil company for doing business with Iran. The foreign minister, Nicolas Maduro, said Venezuela had been trying to establish a dialogue with U.S. officials since Barack Obama became president, but those attempts were spurned.

Still, Fabiola Rodriguez-Ciampoli, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary for public diplomacy in the State Department's Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, told the AP that U.S. government remains open to a dialogue with Venezuela on a range of issues. She said that "public diplomacy" efforts like this week's trip are designed to support traditional diplomacy.

Ann Stock, the State Department's assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs, said in an interview that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has talked about using "smart power" in diplomatic efforts.

"She means using every tool at our disposal," said Stock, who oversees the sports diplomacy office known as SportsUnited. "A lot of that has to do with people-to-people engagement, but this tool we're using at our disposal right now is basketball, and it brings people together in ways that we often can't bring people together. ... All you need is a ball and a hoop."

Stock added that Clinton has stressed that government-to-government relations can't do it alone.

There is not much of that happening between the two countries, anyway, as they have been without ambassadors in each other's capitals since July 2010. President Hugo Chavez rejected Obama's nominee for ambassador, Larry Palmer, accusing him of making disrespectful remarks about Venezuela's government. That prompted the U.S. to revoke the visa of the Venezuelan ambassador.

Chavez has used condemnations of U.S. "imperialism" to appeal to nationalist sentiments among his supporters, while also drawing close to Cuba and Iran, which share his views.

Still, the two nations are deeply linked in trade. Venezuela is one of the United States' main suppliers of petroleum, and the U.S. is Venezuela's chief oil buyer.

The Venezuelan embassy in Washington had no immediate comment on the trip.

Kathleen Behrens, the NBA's executive vice president of social responsibility and player programs, said the league sees such partnerships as ways to "grow the game."

"It's also a great experience for players who participate," she said. "They are great ambassadors for our sport."

The U.S. has used sports diplomacy for decades, most famously in the "pingpong diplomacy" with China in the early 1970s that thawed relations and helped pave the way for a historic visit by President Richard Nixon.


Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press