Thu, Feb 24, 2011 - Page 7 News List

Chavez fans wave meat at students
on hunger strike

Reuters, CARACAS

A cameraman films a piece of meat after supporters of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez waved raw meat at student hunger strikers to mock them outside the Organization of American States headquarters in Caracas on Tuesday.

Photo: Reuters

Supporters of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez waved raw meat at student hunger strikers on Tuesday in mockery of a protest against alleged human rights abuses in the South American nation.

More than 50 students had been on hunger strikes around Venezuela this month to highlight cases of jailed Chavez opponents. Some said they hoped to sow the seed for a movement against Chavez like those sweeping the Arab world.

Yet with the president still commanding support among many Venezuelans and little sign of a mass street movement emerging, analysts say any talk of ending the socialist former soldier’s 12-year rule may be wishful thinking.

In front of the Caracas office of the Organization of American States on Tuesday, a small group of Chavez backers sought to set up a barbecue in front of a dozen hunger strikers camped there for three weeks.

In the ensuing fracas — with both sides shouting at each other — the Chavez supporters waved pieces of raw meat.

“They are cannon-fodder,” said Chavez loyalist Alejandro Gonzalez, repeating the government line that the US government and Venezuelan exiles abroad were financing and directing the opposition protesters.

Strike leader Lorent Saleh, 22, in a wheelchair since fainting on Monday, called it a “ridiculous provocation.”

“If they want a barbecue, go ahead. Venezuela is free,” she said.

Later, the students said they were ending their hunger strike because the government had answered various petitions, including improved treatment for some political prisoners, an inspection of jail conditions and a committee to study cases.

Angered by comparisons with authoritarian leaders in the Middle East and North Africa, the Chavez government had condemned the protest as a show encouraged by opponents in the US to create a “virtual Egypt.”

With a presidential election looming late next year, opinion polls and a recent parliamentary vote show Venezuela fairly evenly split between Chavez supporters and foes.

Opposition parties and rights groups held a march in solidarity with the students on Tuesday. Several hundred demonstrators held banners and chanted anti-government slogans, but it was a far cry from the scenes in the Middle East.

“It’s too early to talk about an Egypt happening in Venezuela,” activist Pedro Paul said of the mass protests that brought down Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak earlier this month.

“But what we are seeing around the world is growing unhappiness with totalitarian regimes, so what’s happening in the Middle East will come to Venezuela sooner or later,” he said.

Chavez supporters accuse the students, who say they have links to a global youth protest movement originating in Serbia called Optor, of being funded by US agencies.

“The pattern of financing, advice and permanent contact between the US State Department and the young opposition activists in Venezuela shows undeniably this group is acting under the orders and in favor of Washington,” wrote US writer and lawyer Eva Golinger, who is close to Chavez.

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