Venezuela's first hunger strike victim: a 'symbol of the oppressed'?

A Venezuelan farmer who died after subjecting himself to several prolonged hunger strikes has become a symbol of resistance for opponents of President Hugo Chavez. The government, however, has accused the opposition and the media of using his death to attack the government ahead of a September 26 parliamentary election. Read more...


Franklin Brito in 2004, and in 2009 during his third hunger strike.

A Venezuelan farmer who died on August 30 after subjecting himself to several prolonged hunger strikes has become a symbol of selfless resistance for opponents of President Hugo Chavez. The government has accused the opposition and the media of using his death to attack Chavez ahead of a September 26 parliamentary election.

Brito's case has been a long-running and complicated saga since his first charge that his land was seized illegally by neighbours in 2003. Brito blamed a local government office, the National Land Institute, for authorising neighbours to occupy a portion of his 716 acres (290 hectares) of land in Southern Venezuela, where he grew cassava, watermelons and cantaloupes. The institute had ruled that these lands were underused by Brito, and authorised their exploitation by neighbouring farmers. Brito contested this ruling, claiming that it came as a reprisal for corruption allegations he made against the Mayor of the nearby city of Sucre. He appealed to the national government to restore his ownership of the lands, and staged several hunger strikes in Caracas to attract attention to his cause. His last strike was interrupted in January 2010 after he was taken against his will to Caracas' military hospital in December 2009. 

Videotaped appeal by Franklin Brito after 120 days of hunger strike in front of the headquarters of the Organisation of American States (OAS) in Caraca. November 5, 2009.

Venezuela's Vice-President Elias Jaua denied Brito's account of events, saying that his complaint had no basis in law and that the government had fully respected the boundaries of his property when granting lands to other farmers. "If we had made a mistake, we wouldn't have hesitated to rectify it," Jaua said at a news conference after Brito's death. But, he said, it was impossible for the government "to give back a right that hadn't been violated."

On Wednesday, the day of Brito's funeral, relatives carried his coffin through a Caracas street, with some in the crowd shouting "Justice!" and demanding the resignation of senior officials. "Franklin Brito's struggle continues... He has left his human form to become a symbol and flag for all those oppressed by the arrogance of power", declared his family in a statement.

A government statement on Thursday lashed Venezuela's opposition leaders for crying "hypocritically" over Brito's death and lacking the "courage" to make their own sacrifice. "Like vultures, they desired and hoped for his death", read the statement, which accused the media and the Catholic Church of encouraging Brito's "extremism" with the sole aim of "having a death for their dirty banners".

Message from Franklin Brito to the people of Venezuela

Brito recorded this message in November 2009: "I want the people of Venezuela [...] to know that I'm not doing this strike for material purpouses. I'm doing it for dignity and justice, because these are values I believe in deeply."

"The sacrifice he made is completely disproportionate"

Fabiana Benaim Mendoza is a junior lawyer in a Caracas law firm. She supports the opposition.

Franklin Brito's story is just one of so many stories of expropriations in Venezuela - that's why it's resonated with so many people. Nowadays, property rights in Venezuela are a very fragile thing. You own something one day, and the next day there will be a new law, and suddenly you're stripped of your ownership. It's not at all unlikely that there was some episode of corruption behind the National Land Institute's decision to allocate part of Brito's lands to other farmers.  But even without corruption, things like this happen all the time. All authorities have to do is say a parcel of land is unproductive, and under the current laws, the State is entitled to seize it.

Many people see Franklin Brito as a hero, but honestly, I don't. I don't understand someone who deprives his family of a husband and father over a land dispute. The sacrifice he made is disproportionate; it didn't do any good at all, neither to him, nor to the country. As a lawyer, if I found myself in the same situation, I would look for another way to obtain justice.  I don't think it will change anything at all ahead of the upcoming elections."

Franklin Brito on strike in front of the OAS headquarters in Caracas. Photo posted on Flickr by Alex Rosales.

Photo posted on Flickr by Alex Rosales

Brito on his bed at the Caracas military hospital in July 2010. Photo posted on the Facebook group Franklin Brito.

"What started as a land dispute between neighbours turned into a media and political symbol"

 Juliana Boersner is a social psychologist from Caracas. She supports Hugo Chavez.

The tragic case of Franklin Brito has become yet another hotly debated polemic in Venezuela around which two camps have polarized. One camp says Brito's claims were coldly ignored by authorities, even when his life was in danger. The second camp (the government and their supporters) says that his claims were addressed as needed and that his property ownership was not violated, and there are documents to prove it. My understanding is that Brito's problem was a dispute with neighbours over unoccupied land, not really a government expropriation.

I'm not sure why he went as far as he did in his hunger strikes. I think that at one point what started as a land dispute between neighbours turned into something much bigger, a sort of media and political symbol. Brito may have been pressured into not giving in by the huge media attention surrounding his protest. That being said, I think that his death is very regrettable. Obviously, I would have much preferred for there to be another outcome to this sad story."