CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez declared on Tuesday that he is no enemy of golf despite his concerns about elite golf courses on prime urban real estate in Caracas.
Chavez made the remark while congratulating Venezuelan golfer Jhonattan Vegas on his win in the Bob Hope Classic on Sunday in California.
"I'm not an enemy of golf. I'm not an enemy of any sport," Chavez said in a televised speech.
"What I've done is criticize that there are some rich guys in Caracas who have... golf courses and next to them the 'ranchos' are falling down," he said, referring to the simple brick homes clinging to hillsides that have been destroyed in recent landslides.
Chavez has suggested the land on Caracas golf courses could be better used as his government seeks to speed construction of public housing — a stance that has raised the possibility the courses could eventually be expropriated.
The president said he hoped to speak with Vegas soon by phone to congratulate him personally.
"He beat all the gringos," said Chavez, laughing. "Let's go, buddy."
The 26-year-old golfer, who came from a humble family in which his father was groundskeeper of a small course, became the first Venezuelan to win an event on the PGA Tour.
Chavez noted that Vegas is black, saying "he looks like (President Barack) Obama."
State television cut to segments of Vegas' successful performance, and Chavez joked "that's how I played golf" years ago in the president's hometown of Sabaneta.
Chavez noted that Vegas lives and plays in the United States, saying he represents Venezuela nevertheless "wherever he lives."
"We're going to practice golf here, too," Chavez said.
The leftist leader has previously called golf a pastime of the rich. His socialist government has closed six courses in recent years, all but one of them on land owned by the state oil company — including the course in eastern Venezuela where Vegas learned to play as a boy.
Vegas has said he hopes to give his sport a boost in Venezuela, where baseball has long been the undisputed favorite.
Chavez sought to separate Vegas' performance from the issue of golf courses in Caracas, where his government is trying to cope with a severe shortage of affordable housing.
The president said he opposes that "a group of very rich people" have a spread of golf courses "there in the heart of Caracas."
He said there is "almost no city in the world" that has golf courses within city limits as Caracas does.
However, Mexico City and Buenos Aires have golf course layouts within the city limits. Golf courses are also common features of many city parks in North America.