CARACAS, Venezuela – A hunger strike by two high-profile imprisoned politicians is generating excitement among some members of a Venezuelan opposition that has seemed mostly disengaged since 2014's fiery protests.
Seven students have spent the past week camped out in in the dusty front yard of a Caracas church drinking nothing but water and Pedialyte in sympathy with jailed former mayors Leopoldo Lopez and Daniel Ceballos, who announced their hunger strike on May 23.
"We have to be the public face," said 28-year-old Julio Rivas, who was clammy and red-eyed after eight days of fasting. "We know people can't see Lopez and know that he's wasting away. So we're taking up his cause."
Lopez, 44, announced the hunger strike via a video leaked from the military prison where he has been held for 15 months on charges related to his role in leading sometimes bloody protests against Venezuela's socialist administration in the spring of 2014. He and Ceballos, 31, are demanding the release of jailed opposition leaders like themselves who human rights groups consider political prisoners. They are also calling on officials to set a date for legislative elections that the law dictates must be held before the end of the year.
Their families say the men are drinking only water and a nutrient serum, though officials have not confirmed this. Lopez's family says he has lost more than 10 pounds and was brought to a Monday court date in an ambulance. Ceballos' supporters say his health also has deteriorated.
Supporters of the hunger strike say President Nicolas Maduro has jailed dozens of people for speaking against him. At least three other imprisoned opposition members have also reportedly joined in the strike.
Maduro has said he will not release the prisoners, who he accuses of conspiring to launch a coup against his democratically elected administration.
State ombudsman Tarek Saab said in a televised interview Monday that the two men should end their protest and not endanger their health. "There are plenty of opportunities to practice politics in Venezuela."
The country's opposition coalition has vacillated in the face of this new rallying call from the prisoners. It declined to endorse a nationwide rally held last weekend at Lopez's urging that drew thousands in the largest display of discontent since flaming barricades choked Venezuela's major cities in 2014.
The widespread shortages, soaring inflation and worsening violent crime that provoked those sometimes deadly protests have worsened in the last year and a half, but people have been reluctant to demonstrate publicly. Even the arrest of Caracas' opposition mayor in February sparked only muted protests.
On Wednesday, the spokesman for Venezuela's coalition of 29 opposition parties stood alongside Lopez's wife and mother at a news conference. Earlier in the day, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights urged Venezuela to allow all prisoners on hunger strike to confer with the doctors of their choice and expressed particular worry about Ceballos.
"We are very concerned about the conditions of detention and the deteriorating health of Daniel Ceballos," the U.N. official, Rupert Colville, said in a statement.
At the young people's encampment in a wealthy neighborhood in eastern Caracas, the protesters ranging from 20 to 30 years old are passing their days and nights sleeping, texting and reading magazines on a pile of blankets. Local health officials said that on Thursday they would send a paramedic to monitor their health around the clock.
Rivas, a legislator from northern Carabobo state, is leading the group. He has been receiving periodic visits from his wife, who is taking care of the couple's year-old daughter.
"She's worried for me, but this is something we feel we have to do for our brothers. We won't stop until they are free," he said.
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