Venezuela Gov. Yields to Student Hunger Strikers

Humberto Márquez

HAVANA TIMES, Feb 22 (IPS) — For the first time in over 20 years, a Venezuelan government gave in Tuesday to the demands of students, more than 60 of whom were on hunger strike, and released or promised better conditions for members of the opposition who are in prison.

“We feel victorious,” student leader Roderick Navarro, one of five students who called off their hunger strike in front of the Brazilian embassy, told IPS. “The government made fun of the protest that began on Jan. 31, but has had to give in to our demand for dialogue and debate on human rights in Venezuela.”

The administration of leftwing President Hugo Chávez agreed to immediately set up a roundtable with the students to study the situation of people described by the protesters as political prisoners, with the participation of the inmates’ lawyers and families.

After 13 students declared a hunger strike outside the offices of the Organisation of American States (OAS) in Caracas, a growing number of university students joined the fast, camping out in front of the embassies of Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica and Paraguay, while others did so in some 10 other Venezuelan states.

In what they called “Operation Freedom”, the students were demanding that the government authorize visits by OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza and by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to assess conditions in prisons and to study the cases of 27 opponents of President Hugo Chávez who they consider political prisoners.

They are demanding the full release of several of the imprisoned opponents; the release on bail of others; and health exams and improved prison conditions for others who have been convicted of different crimes.

The prisoners include three political leaders elected to the single-chamber Congress in the September legislative elections, who the courts have disqualified from taking their seats, which the opposition and human rights activists say is unconstitutional.

The government, whose mediator, Interior Minister Tarek El Aissami, was a student leader in the 1990s, agreed to negotiate demands with respect to several imprisoned Chávez opponents, and to study the conditions in some prisons, but continued to oppose a visit by Insulza or the IACHR.

“Since President Jaime Lusinchi (1984-1989) agreed to negotiate with students who were protesting to demand health insurance and preferential transportation for students, no government has given in to a student protest,” Marino Alvarado, head of Provea, a local human rights group, told IPS.

“We were ready to take this to the very end,” Laurent Saleh, the leader of the group fasting outside the OAS, commented to IPS. “We were inspired by the example of  Franklin Brito (a farmer who died in August 2010 after a five-month hunger strike demanding respect for his property rights), and we were not fighting for ourselves but for the rights of others.”

Saleh also reported that the agreement with the government includes a visit this week with Minister El Aissami to a prison in Caracas.

Both Insulza and the IACHR expressed an interest in visits to Venezuela to meet with the student protesters, but Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro rejected the idea.

Navarro said he was sure that “conversations among leaders abroad, like the one between Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and Secretary General Insulza, made the government react with sense to our demands.”

Insulza, on a visit to Brasilia, said Tuesday he was relieved the protest had come to an end, and he was happy that this was the result of dialogue.

Brito’s death did not bring to an end a wave of hunger strikes in Venezuela. In fact, it prompted more such protests. Provea has counted 31 so far this year, mainly by students, laid-off oil workers demanding their jobs back, former cement industry workers demanding payment of compensation and benefits, and nurses demanding a raise.

Alvarado said she had no doubt that the victory by the students, even if only partial, is a “historic event” partly influenced by the wave of protests led by young people in the Middle East, a region with which oil-rich Venezuela feels strong ties.

“The government has shown that it does not want a heated up student movement,” Alvarado said. “At the start, it scorned this protest, but as the hunger strike grew, in both the number of fasting young people and local residents who expressed solidarity, the government understood that it would gain nothing with its sarcasm.

“In Venezuela there is a social outlook filled with conflict, due to the high inflation (possibly the highest rate in the world, nearly 30 percent), the climate of crisis in the Guayana region (in the southeast, where several key companies are troubled) and growing demands for housing and jobs,” said Alvarado.

For some of the imprisoned Chávez opponents, the students’ partial victory will mean release on bail, the hunger strikers’ legal counsel Gonzalo Himiob explained to IPS. And in other cases, it will mean a review of their cases, especially their state of health and prison conditions.

Under the category of political prisoners, the students included all Chávez opponents charged with or convicted of different crimes, which the protesters say are linked to the fact that they are active opponents of the government. Activists and members of the opposition have complained to international bodies of violations of due process in the trials.