Hunger Strikes Expose Hugo Chávez's Myths

One of Venezuela's most infamous prisons is located in the state of Miranda, southeast of Caracas. There, the Yare III facility, which occasionally garners headlines following one of its frequent deadly riots, is part of a prison system which is well known as one of the worst in Latin America, with 498 violent deaths in 2008.

Given the reputation of Yare III, it is understandable why there was widespread public outrage when the Venezuelan authorities decided to send the 22-year-old university student Julio César Rivas, who has never committed a crime in his life, right into the general population of hardened criminals. His only crime was participating in an August 27th protest against President Chávez's draconian Education Law, where he was arrested and later charged with, among other inventions, attempting to incite civil war.

The use of the justice system to punish César Rivas in such a public and disproportionate way is seen by many in the opposition as part and parcel of a new state policy to criminalize dissent. The message being sent to the youth of Venezuela, the majority of whom reject the president but operate outside the formal network of political parties, is that they can do anything to anybody -- and that no human rights oor mercy will stand in their way.

The response from fellow student leaders has been dramatic. Outside the Caracas headquarters of the Organization of American States (OAS), an impromptu tent city of protesters was established (filled with mattresses and banners like a refugee camp), where last Friday they initiated a mass hunger strike to demand his release, as well as a visit from a special commission of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the OAS to investigate the situation of political prisoners in Venezuela.

On Sunday night they were joined in solidarity by some of Venezuela's high profile political prisoners, many of whom are confined to the "Helicoide" in the center of Caracas, a building once designed to be a shopping mall, but which now houses the headquarters of Venezuela's much feared secret police, the DISIP. Eligio Cedeño, one of the hunger strikers and a political prisoner whom I represent, has been locked up there on false charges without a complete trial or conviction for more than two and a half years.

Very few could have predicted that the hunger strike would put so much pressure on the Chávez administration - even fewer foresaw the important victory they would obtain. On Tuesday, Julio César Rivas was finally able to leave the Yare prison unharmed on conditional release (now he will have to appear in person before a judge every 30 days, and is unable to leave the country, a repressive condition applied to hundreds of students). However the strike itself has continued, and with even greater numbers, until the IACHR responds to their requests for a delegation.

It is a rare thing to see so much government backpedaling. Gabriela Ramírez, the ironically state-appointed "People's Defender," has issued statements denying that there exists an "alleged State policy to deprive people of their liberty who exercise their right to protest." The attorney general Luisa Ortega Díaz is similarly denying any irregularities over the mass arrests of protesters, despite the fact that earlier this year she pushed through stiffer laws to imprison anyone who "disturbs the peace" in showing their dissent with the government. It is very rare to see this government stray from its script and actually respond to its citizens.

So why have the students been so successful in getting under Chávez's skin? How have they been so effective in breaking through the noise of the sometimes repetitive and cacophonous complaints of the relatively unorganized opposition? The answer, at least in part, is because they have honed in specifically on the government's weakest and most vulnerable points - the myths of progressive policies and social inclusion. And they have done so in a way that the clumsy and faux-pas prone opposition has often been missing.

In a new article published by the political scientist Javier Corrales in Washington Quarterly, it is argued that Chávez has created an intimidating illusion of strong social programs, which in many minds seem to trump all other concerns or abuses of citizens' rights. Few other countries in the region can stand up for human rights in Venezuela, Corrales writes, because "they fear that picking a fight with the patron-saint of the poor will enervate radical left-wingers at home, potentially destabilizing their governments. Chávez has crafted a coalition of the silent, even among those he annoys, and that is not a trivial victory."

But the existence of more than 50 hunger striking students on the steps of the OAS headquarters blows the smoke off the myth that Chávez is still some sort of social democrat who cares about his people. The wider world was willing to ignore all the other aberrant signs that this regime is very different than what it claims to be, such as $2.2 billion in additional Russian arms, open cooperation with Iran on procuring uranium for their nuclear program, and building a deep friendship with the genocidal president of Sudan.

Throughout history it is shown that you can't be a revolutionary for very long without the support of the youth behind you, and what is happening in Venezuela this week is making this change painfully visible. It is something I noticed during my visit to the country earlier this year, when Chávez was boasting about giving the children of Venezuela "a good dose of the gas" to break up their demonstrations, and it has continued even further with the Education Law and the decision to throw an innocent 22-year-old deep to the wolves in a high-security prison. This is what separates a revolutionary from a caudillo.

The brave students on hunger strike have shown what can happen when Chávez goes too far, and the fact that they are having success is the best news they have had in years. Mr. Jose Miguel Insulza, Secretary General of the OAS, the ball is now in your court.