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Cubs’ Willson Contreras finds voice, powerful allies in fight for Venezuela

MESA, Ariz. — Underestimate Cubs catcher Willson Contreras at your own risk.

Manager Joe Maddon has talked about that for years, often describing Contreras’ resourcefulness and fast-twitch study skills as he developed into a National League All-Star.

But in the real world of geopolitical power and conflict, Contreras has begun to exert his well-known passion and energy into a force that is starting to be heard a continent away in the fight for freedom in Venezuela.

Contreras, 26, has become an outspoken social-media activist for the people of his native country by opposing strongman president Nicolas Maduro, who has been condemned by most of the democracies of the world for corruption that has led to social and economic chaos in the once-thriving South American nation.

Willson Contreras (John Antnoff photo)

‘‘We have a dictatorship going on in Venezuela; we hope it’s over soon,’’ Contreras said early in spring training. ‘‘I’m just tired of seeing a lot of kids dying because they don’t have nothing to eat. Venezuela’s tired of seeing a lot of old men dying because they don’t have medicine or because people cannot [afford] food.’’

Many countries, including the United States, recognize opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s president in support of a declaration by its national assembly.

Contreras has partnered with a manufacturer to sell “Freedom For Venezuela” T-shirts in the colors of the country’s flag to raise money to support humanitarian efforts there.

‘‘It’s doing well,’’ he said of sales of the shirt, which has been worn around the clubhouse by teammates in recent weeks.

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More than anything else, Contreras has been clear and strong in his calls for action back home, posting images and videos to his social-media accounts depicting often-horrifying conditions on the streets of a country now suffering from near-constant blackout conditions in addition to deadly shortages of food, potable water and medicine.

He was last there for a month near the holidays and said he has no intention of going back anytime soon.

‘‘Not for this year,’’ Contreras said. ‘‘I would love to go, but it’s going to be risky, especially because I’ve been posting things against the regime and I don’t want them to go after me or [those close]. You know how a dictatorship works.’’

A decade after Venezuelan players were often reluctant to speak out against previous president Hugo Chavez and, later, Maduro, Contreras doesn’t hold back his emotions or convictions, including support for military intervention on behalf of citizens who literally are starving to death.

‘‘I hope so,’’ he said. ‘‘We’re just waiting for it. We need that.’’

Meanwhile, his efforts don’t end with fundraising and public-awareness campaigns. Contreras, who as a rookie befriended people in the office of Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, recently struck up a friendship with John Pence, a Cubs fan from Indiana, a powerful Republican operative and the nephew of vice president Mike Pence.

‘‘We’re close,’’ said Contreras, who saw John Pence’s social-media videos in support of Guaidó’s efforts — many in Spanish — and reached out. ‘‘I told my wife I want to become friends with this guy. And then I DM’d him on social media and he replied back, and then we just started talking about the situation in Venezuela.’’

John Pence, who since has worn Contreras’ shirt in videos, helped Contreras get his parents — who were without power for a week — out of Venezuela and into the United States last week.

‘‘It means a lot, especially having Mom and Dad in town,’’ he said. ‘‘That takes a lot of weight off my shoulders, a lot of pressure off myself, and lets me be a little more free and happy.’’

One of Contreras’ two brothers is a catcher in the Braves’ system and is in Florida with the team, not far from Contreras’ ranch in the central part of the state. His other brother is in Chile and hope to obtain a U.S. visa, too.

‘‘I haven’t talked [to John Pence] about my brother’s visa, but I’m about to, to see if he can help,’’ Contreras said.

Contreras’ willingness to face potential retribution by using his growing voice in the fight for his home country makes Major League Baseball’s ban last year on him wearing a Venezuelan-flag sleeve especially petty. He is working through the union to get MLB to lift the ban and this spring has been wearing an arm guard with Venezuela’s colors.

Contreras’ focus and adjustments on the field this spring have been especially impressive, given his increased activism, his manager and coaches said.

‘‘When I’m here [at the ballpark], I’m not thinking of anything,’’ he said. ‘‘I’m just focused on what I need to do, where do I need to get better, how do I need to get better, how I can help our team win.

‘‘But once I step out of the ballpark, everything comes to my mind right away.’’