In Venezuela, Hunger Strikes Are a Powerful Weapon Against Chávez

It’s been two weeks, and Villca Fernández has not had a thing to eat.

Fernández, who is 28, is one of about 16 college students and professors in Venezuela who is on a hunger strike – the latest of several hunger strikes in the South American nation this year.

Fernández and his fellow hunger strikers are protesting what they see as President Hugo Chávez’s war on Venezuela’s public universities and the freedom of expression they harbor. They say the universities are starved of resources, the professors are not receiving fair wages, and the laboratories are falling into disrepair.

“We feel it’s intentional,” said Fernández, a political science major at La Universidád de los Andes, in a telephone interview from Venezuela. “Chávez sees the politics of public universities as not conforming to his interests. He sees the views among students and professors as a threat, so he’s not giving the universities support, or sufficient resources.”

Venezuelans increasingly are turning to the hunger strike as a way to pressure the Chávez government on the issue of human rights, and to draw international attention to other concerns. Marco Antonio Pónce of the Provea rights group said the organization had counted 35 hunger strikes so far this year - compared to 105 in all of 2010 and five during 2009, according to The Associated Press.

"Venezuela's population has been turning to more radical forms of peaceful protest," Pónce said

Last year a farmer, Franklin Brito, died after a hunger strike he held in a protest over land he said had been seized illegally by the Chávez government.

Earlier this year, scores of young activists around Venezuela held a hunger strike to call attention to human rights abuses by government forces, and to demand that the Chávez administration allow the Organization of American States, or OAS, to investigate what they said was the wrongful imprisonment and prosecution of political opponents.

The hunger strike, which resulted in several students needing hospitalization, prompted Chávez to make some concessions. Among those concessions, which led the students to end that hunger strike, was a vow by the Chávez administration to review the cases of people the protesters said had been jailed because of their political opposition to Chávez.

Some observers said that the images at the time of young protesters bringing Egypt to a standstill in their demand for President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster were a factor in Chávez’s uncharacteristically benign response to the hunger strikers.

“Chávez is very nervous,” said Moises Naim, an analyst at Washington’s Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, to the Wall Street Journal. “He got scared. That’s why he gave in to the requests of the hunger strikers.”

Chávez, though, typically has tried to discredit his critics, accusing them of being puppets for the United States.

Last year Human Rights Watch assailed Chávez for being punitive with Venezuelans who criticized him. The organization noted the detention of a former governor of the state of Zúlia, and the head of television station – both of whom criticized the Chávez administration.

“To prosecute someone for speech, which should be protected under any standard of democracy, is a dangerous precedent,” wrote José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement on the group’s website. “For years, Chávez has been pushing legislation to restrict free speech. Now we seem to be entering a darker period in which he is enforcing these draconian laws.”

Fernández said that he and fellow students decided to participate in this latest strike after exhausting all other ways of making their concerns known about the deficient resources for public universities.

“For more than four years we’ve tried diplomatic means, and the government has been unresponsive,” said Fernández, who has taken part in two other hunger strikes, in 2009 and 2010, to protest human rights violations. “In fact, they’ve tried to muzzle us. So the only way we’ve found to get this taken seriously is to get international attention to the human rights crisis here is to go on the hunger strike.”

Alfredo Weil, an attorney dubbed the “dean of election organization and monitoring” in Venezuela, said in a telephone interview from Caracas that Chávez’s government “doesn’t dialogue, it just reacts under pressure.”

Venezuelan opponents of the Chávez administration say they have followed – and learned lessons from – the activist strategies of Cuban opponents of the regime of the Castro brothers.

Dissidents in Cuba long have staged hunger strikes to protest the Communist regime. Last year, one jailed dissident, Orlando Zapáta Tamáyo, died after hunger strike to protest human rights abuses and prison conditions. The death drew worldwide criticism of the regime and focused attention on the country’s political prisoners.

Another Cuban dissident, Guillermo Fariñas, also held a hunger strike, in honor of Zapáta, to demand the release of political prisoners. Fariñas, who fell seriously ill during his 140-day strike, was able to get the Cuban government to agree to release 52 political prisoners.

Cuban-American activists in the United States say hunger strikes – employed by Mohandas Gandhi to protest British rule in India, and Northern Ireland’s Bobby Sands, who died after three months of not eating – are a last resort and can be counterproductive.

“It can backfire if it doesn’t go right,” said Omar López Montenégro, director for human rights for the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami. “It’s definitely a way to get a lot of attention to a cause, but you can also run the risk of losing credibility if people stop the hunger strike without getting any results. And of course, the ultimate price for people who stick it out is a long-term health consequence or death.”

“Farina’s hunger strike worked because it followed the death of Zapáta, which embarrassed the Cuban government, so the timing was critical, the government was vulnerable,” said Lopez Montenegro. “He was also demanding something reasonable, doable.”Venezuelan activists say the guidance of Cuban exiles has been important in their own struggle.

“Cuban and Venezuelan exiles in Miami and Spain have worked together to fight for democracy in their homelands, and supported each other’s efforts,” Fernández said. “The Cuban exiles try to advise us on how to draw attention to the injustices in Venezuela.”

Fernández feels human rights activists in Venezuela have their work cut out for them. Too much of the world, he said, still lacks a grasp of the oppression in Venezuela under Chávez.

"We want to make the world know that they must not be lulled, must not underestimate Hugo Chávez," Fernández said. "He is one of the few world leaders who has not denounced what Muammar Qaddafi is doing in Libya, the violence against the protesters who want him out. He has, in fact, said he supports him."

"He is an ally of all the dictators in the world," he said. "He must be taken seriously, it is perilous for everyone to dismiss him."

Follow us on
Like us at

Follow politics and immigration reporter Elizabeth Llorente on Twitter: @LlorenteLatino