3 hunger strikers hospitalized in Venezuela

Ambulances whisked three students to a hospital Monday after they fainted while on a hunger strike to demand an international probe into alleged human rights abuses by President Hugo Chavez's government.

The protesters passed out as paramedics were taking blood samples from demonstrators outside the offices of the Organization of American States, said Enrique Montbrum, health director of Caracas' Baruta district, where the OAS mission is located.

Montbrum told the Globovision TV channel that one of the students temporarily stopped breathing, but later recovered. He said doctors were recommending that the three not rejoin the protest.

The hunger strike appears to be building momentum since it began Jan. 31, gaining dozens of new participants as its organizers attract international attention.

Student activist Julio Cesar Rivas said Monday that more than 80 people are currently participating, though his count could not be independently confirmed. The protesters say they are subsisting on only water and saline solution.

So far, Chavez has shown no sign he might give in.

"It appears the government won't budge," said Gilbert Merkx, director of international studies at Duke University and a scholar of Venezuelan affairs.

Merkx said the fact that Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami has met with students "suggests that Chavez could be worried about the protest or its implications."

But in general, Merkx added, Chavez's government has recently been "hardening its responses to challenges and will make only minor tactical concessions" in this case.

Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue, agreed.

"They are not in the mood to accommodate the demands of the students," Shifter said, though he added that "if it grows, they may have to give in a bit."

The protesters are pushing the government to let Jose Miguel Insulza, secretary-general of the OAS, visit and investigate their allegations that the government misuses the judicial branch to persecute Chavez opponents — a charge he denies.

Their hunger strike prompted OAS representatives to discuss the students' demands and Insulza to reiterate that he's willing to go to Venezuela.

That drew a strong reaction from Caracas' friends in the left-leaning ALBA bloc of nations, which told Insulza to not meddle in Venezuela's domestic affairs.

In a joint statement issued last week, ALBA allies including Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador said Insulza's actions threatened "a dangerous return to the times when the OAS was an instrument of interventionism and colonialism" of the United States.

Washington has urged Chavez to allow a visit by Insulza, but Shifter said there is little motivation for others in the region to push for an investigation.

"I see very little will to press the issue," he said.

Steve Ellner, a political scientist at Venezuela's University of the East, said Insulza may be reluctant to press hard for an OAS probe because he "would be accused of partisanship if he took a strong stand in favor of the Venezuelan students."

Rivas, the student activist, criticized ALBA nations for defending the Venezuelan government.

"It's offensive," Rivas said in a telephone interview. "It shows a lack of respect, but we know these countries are pawns of Chavez."