Venezuelan hunger striker dies after repeated protests over land dispute with government

By Ian James, AP
Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Farmer-turned-hunger striker dies in Venezuela

CARACAS, Venezuela — A farmer who held repeated hunger strikes in a land dispute with Venezuela’s government has died in a military hospital where he had been taken against his will.

For opponents of President Hugo Chavez, Franklin Brito’s emaciated figure became a symbol of government highhandedness and they joined the family Tuesday in accusing the government of violating his rights.

Brito’s family announced his death Monday night, saying his “body stopped carrying out vital functions.”

“Fundamental human rights were violated in my father’s case,” Brito’s daughter, Angela, told journalists outside the hospital Tuesday while the family waited for his body to be turned over. “They held him in the military hospital against his will for nearly nine months. They didn’t give access to doctors he trusted, even though he requested it.”

Venezuelan officials say they took Brito to the hospital trying to safeguard his life, and have accused Chavez opponents of using him for political purposes.

The 49-year-old farmer began his protests in 2004, blaming the government for the seizure of a portion of his 716 acres (290 hectares) by other farmers who invaded his property. The squatters moved onto land where Brito grew cassava, watermelons and cantaloupes after the government gave permission to others to work adjacent lands — eventually cutting off his access to the farm.

Such conflicts have played out across Venezuela as Chavez’s socialist-oriented government has backed seizures of farms that it deems unproductive and has awarded supporters with plots to cultivate.

Brito lived out his final months withering away in the military hospital in Caracas, where he was taken against his will in December by authorities who picked him up from his protest camp outside the offices of the Organization of American States.

Relatives and other critics said the government held responsibility for his condition in the hospital.

“Franklin Brito’s death is a consequence of the intransigence, of the arrogant way Venezuela is being governed,” said Marino Alvarado, leader of the human rights group Provea. “This is a case that could have been resolved with a little bit of willingness to have a dialogue.”

Chavez’s agriculture minister, Juan Carlos Loyo, said the government never proposed taking Brito’s land and tried to help him.

Loyo said in comments reported by the state-run Venezuelan News Agency that he visited Brito recently at the hospital hoping to see “how we could help for humanitarian reasons.”

Goverment officials have said they ordered squatters to leave Brito’s land and neighbors were ordered to allow him access to the land.

But Brito had a drastically different view, saying he wanted the government to acknowledge in writing that it had erred in providing the farming permits and taking away his access to the land. He felt that would guarantee his property rights, and was a matter of principle.

During six years of on-and-off protests, he said it was important to establish what occurred — saying it was a “farm that was expropriated, although later they have wanted to erase” that.

“Some people think I’m crazy, but this way I help my children more than giving up. This is a matter of dignity,” Brito said during one protest.

Over the past eight years, Chavez’s government says it has seized more than 5 million acres (2 million hectares) of farmland, often targeting property that officials contend was either fallow or underused. The government has said it aims to boost food production and aid the landless.

Critics say the measures have often targeted working farms and are hurting food output.

Brito’s public struggle — which his family said involved more than eight hunger strikes — began in November 2004 in a city plaza in Caracas. He refused food for nine days, then ended that protest after authorities promised to tend to his case.

In July 2005, Brito sewed his mouth shut to protest what his family called the government’s failure to live up to its promise. Later, he grabbed attention by cutting off a finger in front of the television cameras.

Chavez opponents accused the government of moving Brito to the military hospital to make his protests less visible. Once there, he intensified his protests.

He died six days before his 50th birthday.

Hernan Bongioanni, secretary general of the Venezuelan Red Cross, said Brito’s prolonged hunger strikes led to “a progressive deterioration of both his weight and organs,” and he died after developing a respiratory infection that led to septic shock.

“There was liver failure, kidney failure and, at the end, unfortunately we had a body with an impaired immune system,” Bongioanni told state television.

Both family and opposition politicians called Brito a champion of human rights.

Weeping friends and relatives laid hands on his flag-draped coffin during a wake where the national anthem was played Tuesday night.

Associated Press videojournalist Yesica Fisch and AP writer Jorge Rueda contributed to this report.

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