The hunger strike – an essential tool in the non-violent struggle against tyranny – has an uneven history.
Mahatma Gandhi undertook numerous hunger strikes, most of them succesful. According to this Wikipedia page, Gandhi took part in seventeen hunger strikes during his lifetime, and not all of them against the British. Some of them were to call attention to issues of unity between Hindus and Muslims, while others were for atonement of mistakes made by his own camp.
The Cuban dissidents Guillermo Fariñas and Orlando Zapata have also embarked on hunger strikes. Fariñas has taken on several, and relented following certain concessions from the authorities. Zapata died in 2010 after two months without eating.
Other prominent hunger strikers have also died while striking, most notably Bobby Sands and sufraggette Mary Jane Clarke in the UK. Clarke died after being force-fed to surrender her hunger strike, which some have characterized as torture.
Well into their third week of hunger, there is no sign the government is willing to budge on any of the three issues they have brougfht to the forefront: freedom for political prisoners, the end of repression, and the announcement of Parliamentary elections.
How will this end? It is too soon to tell, but we can analyze the possibilities.
First, the prisoners may die.
I find it hard to believe López or Ceballos would be willing to go this far at this stage of the fight, but it cannot be ruled out, particularly given how they are not getting the right medical attention. If this were to happen, it would be a dramatic development in the struggle for democarcy in our country. Personally, I can’t bring myself to even consider such a scenario.
A more likely one is a partial retreat, either from the government or from the strikers.
The strikers could decide to suspend their strike, as many have urged them to do. Few could blame them for doing so, although the government would surely spin this as a victory, and surely some of those less charitable in the opposition would criticize them for recklessly plunging into a situation where they were not willing to go all they way.
Another alternative is for the government to give in to some of their complaints, particularly announcing the date of the Parliamentary election. This would enough of an excuse for López, Ceballos and the others to suspend their hunger strikes, allowing them to claim some sort of success. A far less likely scenario is for the government to give in to all of their demands.
Regardless of the outcome, the hunger strikers have accomplished one feat: rallying the opposition behind their cause, if only temporarily. Even the most anti-Salida politicians have expressed some support for the strikers’ demands in recent days, and nobody in the opposition wants to see López or Ceballos die in custody, no matter how much they dislike them.
The hunger strike is an incredibly risky bet. One element required for its success would appear to be a government that worries about its image. Chavismo has always taken care of how it is portrayed in the media, so the logic of the hunger strike might make some sense in our current context. However, the desire to fit in is counterbalanced by the internal logic pushing chavismo to appear as strong instead of weak. The push between these two countervailing forces within chavismo will determine its ultimate attitude toward the hunger strikers – if they decide that the cost to its public image outweighs the cost of giving in to their demands, it might relent.
From our little corner, we can only hope it ends without anyone dying. Whether the opposition accomplishes anything with it or not is almost beside the point. The one thing we are all hungry for … is some sort of resolution.
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