CARACAS (Reuters) - Major League Baseball said on Thursday it was suspending involvement in the upcoming Venezuelan professional baseball season pending instructions from the U.S. government, which has repeatedly sanctioned the South American nation's government.
Four sources close to the Venezuelan league told Reuters earlier that MLB would not give permission for players to participate, attributing the move to U.S. sanctions.
Venezuelans who play for MLB's 30 teams or their hundreds of minor league affiliates often return to their homeland to play for one of eight professional Venezuelan teams during the winter season, which begins in October.
Players from other countries also participate.
Washington this month froze Venezuelan state assets and threatened to impose sanctions on any company that does business with President Nicolas Maduro's government, which is accused of human rights violations and has overseen an economic collapse.
"With respect to the Venezuelan Winter League, MLB will suspend its involvement in that league until it receives direction from the relevant agencies that participation by affiliated players is consistent with the Executive Order," MLB said in a statement.
Venezuela's professional baseball league, known by the acronym LVBP, received a $12 million sponsorship last year from state oil company PDVSA, which itself was targeted by sanctions in January.
An LVBP spokesman said the league had not received any official communication from MLB. The Major League Baseball Players Association, the union representing players, also did not respond to a request for comment.
As of March, there were 68 players from baseball-mad Venezuela on MLB rosters, the second most of any country outside the United States, behind the Dominican Republic's 102.
The number of major league stars returning to play in the LVBP during the winter has diminished in recent years because of rising insecurity in the crisis-stricken nation. Many LVBP players play, however, for MLB's hundreds of minor league teams.
One source consulted on the issue, who asked not to be identified, said MLB's move would affect minor league players as well. Representatives of Maduro's government told LVBP officials in a meeting this week that the upcoming season must take place "however it happens," according to a second source.
Venezuela's Information Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In 2011, Venezuelan catcher Wilson Ramos - who played for the Washington Nationals at the time and now plays for the New York Mets - was kidnapped outside his mother's home in the central Venezuelan city of Valencia. [https://reut.rs/2P9Zlz2]
Last December, two former MLB players who were playing for the LVBP's Cardenales de Lara died in a car accident after their car hit a rock in the road while traveling at night.
The Trump administration earlier this year blocked a deal that would have allowed players from Cuba - a close ideological ally of Maduro - to sign with MLB teams without needing to defect.
(Reporting by Corina Pons, Luc Cohen, Vivian Sequera and Mayela Armas in Caracas; Editing by Dan Grebler and Peter Cooney)