For Real Salt Lake's Jefferson Savarino, Venezuela's civil strife is never far away

Real Salt Lake forward Jefferson Savarino (7) gestures to a quiet crowd with midfielders Albert Rusnak (11), left, and Kyle Beckerman (5), all of whom scored goals against the LA Galaxy, in the second half of an MLS soccer match in Carson, Calif., Tuesday, July 4, 2017. Real Salt Lake won, 6-2. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

The Venezuela national team strode onto the pitch to the delight of a roaring fan base, and pride swelled in Jefferson Savarino’s red-jersey-clad chest. What better way to be welcomed back home?

“It’s a very difficult situation in the country,” the Real Salt Lake winger said through a translator, “but with the national team there the people were very strong together.”

The Venezuelan city of San Cristóbal hosted that 2018 World Cup qualifying match between Venezuela and Columbia on Aug. 31. Less than three months prior, the city’s skies had buzzed with the sounds of military helicopters closing in as police stations burst in flames and looters broke into dozens of businesses.

Portland at Real Salt Lake<br>Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. Saturday<br>TV: KMYU

Over the past five months violent protests have become increasingly common throughout Venezuela, resulting in more than 120 deaths. Political tumult paired with a collapsing economy has made for crisis many fear could erupt in civil war. When RSL acquired Savarino on loan from the Venezuelan club Zulia FC, he and his wife, Jeiglys Duarte, were able to leave all that behind, at least for the season. But the 20-year-old winger remains tied to his suffering home country.

Savarino is slow to bring up the Venezuela crisis. He said he doesn’t watch the news often because it would drive him crazy.

“The situation in Venezuela doesn’t affect him because he’s very professional on the field and he can separate his country’s situation and living in the U.S.,” RSL center back Marcelo Silva said through a translator.

Savarino calls home four times a week to talk to his parents, seven siblings and 11 nieces and nephews, who all still live in Zulia. The failing economy has affected them some, Savarino’s brother Josue Viscaya said, but they are resilient.

“The [Venezuelan] people are very strong,” he said through a translator. “...The politicians’ relationships are complicated, but the people in Venezuela go on.”

The roots of the Venezuela crisis stretch back before protests became a daily occurrence. Venezuela’s economy was hit hard when oil prices began to fall in 2014. Venezuelans faced food and medicine shortages, and the country continues to sink deeper into debt.

In late March, a month before Savarino signed with RSL, the crisis intensified. Protesters opposing President Nicolas Maduro accused him of transitioning the country’s democracy into a dictatorship. They’ve clashed with security forces and Maduro supporters, resulting in violence.

According to a report by the United Nations human rights office, the death toll from protests between April 1 and July 31 reached 124, and security forces allegedly killed at least 46 people. Other reports indicate that the death toll was higher.

The Venezuelan government put forth a plan this week to meet with opposition for formal talks in the Dominican Republic, but the coalition refused to engage in talks until the government promised to honor its list of demands.

Still, Savarino said he doesn’t think the crisis will escalate into civil war.

“I don’t believe that God would let that happen,” he said.

The violent protests in San Cristóbal three months ago erupted in the wake of two young men being fatally shot on May 15 after weeks of largely peaceful demonstrations. At least one more died over the next three days.

When Savarino arrived with the national team in late August, however, Venezuelans filed into the stadium unified by their national team.

Among them were Savarino’s father, brother and aunt, who had made the eight-hour drive to see him.

“I cried,” Savarino said. “I felt the love that they have for me and it’s great to know that they’re still there to support you and to love you. There’s nothing greater than that.”

Savarino didn’t see any minutes in Venezuela’s 0-0 draw with Colombia, but when he stepped onto the field with his teammates, Viscaya got chills all the same just seeing his brother represent the country.

The senior team has already been eliminated from 2018 World Cup contention, but Venezuela’s U-20 team made it to the World Cup final in June, where they lost 1-0 to England. They may not have a chance at a World Cup in two years, but they have hope for the future, Viscaya said.

“It just helps people around the soccer community just kind of build happiness and believe that Venezuela has something special,” Viscaya said.

Savarino’s reunion with his family and his country were brief. Back in Salt Lake City more than 3,500 miles separate him from his family and the Venezuela crisis. 

Come offseason, however, he plans to return.

“I pray and I ask God that he would watch over our people,” Savarino said. “…We need to change our mentality and the way that we need to look at things. We need to humble ourselves in order to ask God so that he can have the power to protect us and to change things.”