Hunger Strikes Across Latin America Fuelled by Institutional Deafness

(IPS) – Protesters ranging from prisoners to government leaders have resorted to hunger strikes in Latin America in recent years to press their demands. Behind the growing use of the extreme protest measure is a lack of institutional responses, according to experts. No longer is the hunger strike only a radical measure resorted to mainly by prison inmates. Workers, peasants, indigenous people, businesspersons, students, nuns, priests, legislators, judges, reporters and teachers in the region have been fasting for different causes in countries governed by political forces of all stripes.

In Bolivia, the president himself, Aymara Indian Evo Morales, declared a hunger strike in April 2009 to press for passage of a law.

And opposition to another law prompted a group of around 30 journalists to fast this month for 14 days in the eastern Bolivian city of Santa Cruz.

In Costa Rica, a group of environmentalists have been on a hunger strike outside the presidential palace since Oct. 8, to protest an executive decree declaring that an open-pit gold mine in Crucitas, in the north of the country, is in the “public interest,” thus allowing the project to go ahead.

And in the northern Chilean region of Coquimbo, Cristian Flores, spokesman for a group of 11 residents of the town of Caimanes, told IPS that “In 10 years we have never received a response from the state.”

He was explaining why the group decided to declare a hunger strike on Sept. 27, to demand the removal and clean-up of a nearby mine tailings deposit.

A much higher profile hunger strike in Chile came to an end early this month after 82 days. A group of 34 prisoners belonging to the country’s largest indigenous group, the Mapuche, were demanding fair trials.

They called off their protest when charges against them under a strict anti-terrorism law were withdrawn and the government of rightwing President Sebastián Piñera promised they would be tried under standard criminal law.

Although they are not a new phenomenon, hunger strikes are “symptoms of something more serious: that there are segments of the population in Latin America who are invisible and are not being heard,” José Santos, at the Institute of Advanced Studies of the University of Santiago, Chile, told IPS.

On Jul. 23, laid-off members of Mexico’s Electrical Workers Union (SME) lifted a hunger strike in which both men and women participated for different lengths of time, ranging between 34 and 90 days, as part of a struggle to get their jobs back after a state-owned power utility was closed down in the capital.

The protest ended when conservative Mexican President Felipe Calderón agreed to high-level talks to address the demands of the workers, several of whom were in critical condition.

Santos, a philosopher and academic, disagrees with the idea that the peaceful pressure mechanism has become “fashionable.”

He also said there was a difference between indefinite hunger strikes and shorter fasts joined to support a specific cause.

José Aylwin, co-director of the Citizen Observatory, a Chilean NGO, said hunger strikes in the Southern Cone country occurred because of the state’s “serious limitations” in guaranteeing “the exercise of political rights.”

One of these limitations, he told IPS, is Chile’s electoral system, “which excludes not only indigenous people, but also different currents of opinion or thought, from legislative decision-making.” Another is “the tightly controlled access to the media,” he added.

In both Cuba and Venezuela, protesters have died as a result of hunger strikes.

In Venezuela “the hunger strike is no longer just a tool used by prisoners; it has been used by oil workers and workers in other industries in the hands of the state, as well as other segments of society,” Marino Alvarado, coordinator of the Venezuelan Programme of Education-Action in Human Rights (PROVEA), told IPS.

In July 2009, the mayor of the metropolitan area of Caracas, opposition politician Antonio Ledesma, fasted for 130 hours to protest a move by the government of socialist President Hugo Chávez to take over many of the mayor’s duties and offices by creating another post.

And in September, university students fasted to complain against alleged political persecution by the Chávez administration.

Jesuit missionary José María Korta, 81, used the same mechanism Oct. 18-25 to press for the release of three Yukpa indigenous men in prison on murder charges, respect for native forms of justice, and a large uninterrupted Yukpa territory instead of several smaller disconnected ones in northern Venezuela.

The only Venezuelan to die as a result of a hunger strike was Franklin Brito, a 49-year-old farmer and schoolteacher who died on Aug. 30 after fasting for five months, demanding respect for his property rights over his land. In the last few years he had held several previous hunger strikes.

“The protests have not only grown in number, but have also become more radical and coordinated, and people are increasingly defying the state” in Venezuela, Alvarado said.

In Cuba, hunger strikes are used by dissidents protesting against the government of Raúl Castro, which considers dissident groups “mercenaries” at the service of the hostile U.S. policy towards the socialist island nation. According to the independent Cuba Archive, 12 people have died in hunger strikes since the 1959 revolution.

The demands set forth by the hunger strikers have been better prison conditions, recognition as political prisoners, and release from jail. Orlando Zapata, 42, died in prison on Feb. 23 after refusing food for 85 days.

“The government deliberately let Zapata die. It was a death foretold,” Elizardo Sánchez, head of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, a dissident group, told IPS.

The government denied responsibility.

Political dissident Guillermo Fariñas was internationally renowned for his repeated hunger strikes. After Zapata died, he declared his own hunger strike on Feb. 24 in his home in the central Cuban city of Santa Clara demanding the release of 26 prisoners with health problems. He called off his protest on Jul. 8 when the imprisoned dissidents began to be released.

Hunger strikes are “a legitimate recourse in extreme situations, resorted to by racial, gender or other minorities,” said Sánchez, who added that “hunger strikes will continue to happen as long as people lack other means to defend their rights.”

Alvarado said “The hunger strike, an expression of desperation and civic protest in which people risk their health and life, is a sign that the game between government and the governed is stuck, that people are not finding a solution to their demands, and frequently not even institutional responses. It is a negative symptom, dangerous to society.”

*With reporting by Humberto Márquez (Caracas) and Patricia Grogg (Havana).