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VENEZUELA: Hunger Striker Dies in Land Dispute

Humberto Márquez

CARACAS, Aug 31 2010 (IPS) - Franklin Brito, who held several long hunger strikes since 2004 to defend ownership of his farm, became the first Venezuelan to fast to the death.

Brito, a 49-year-old farmer and schoolteacher, died late Monday at the military hospital in Caracas, to which he had been admitted on the orders of a judge against his will. At the time of his death, the 1.90-metre-tall man weighed just 34 kilos. He died after five months of fasting.

He staged his initial fasts when the government’s National Land Institute (INTI) gave neighbours permission to occupy part of his 290-hectare farm, and he and his wife Elena Rodríguez were fired from the public school where they taught, after they protested to a local mayor about a crop programme implemented in the southeastern state of Bolívar, where their farm is located.

In 2005, 2007 and 2008, the INTI negotiated compensation agreements with Brito, at one point offering him 230,000 dollars in reparations. It also gave him farm vehicles and equipment. In addition, the debt of the teachers’ salaries owed to Brito and his wife was recognised, and they were given full use of their land. The “cartas agrarias” allowing neighbours to use part of the land — property that Brito had originally received from the INTI in 1999 — were eventually annulled, and the people occupying the land left last year.

Nevertheless, Brito complained that the government did not provide him with certified copies of the documents clearly stating that the donations were reparations for damages caused, and he refused the compensation funds, saying he did not want to be accused of being “an accomplice in a corrupt act.”

He also maintained that the revocation of the “cartas agrarias” and the offers of indemnification were not carried out through the proper channels and were thus illegal, and continued his protests.

In December 2009, the authorities removed Brito from his protest camp outside the Organisation of American States (OAS) offices and admitted him to the military hospital. The judge issuing the order said it was aimed at providing him with medical assistance.

But he denounced the move as a “kidnapping,” refused medical care from the military doctors and demanded assistance from the Red Cross, and rejected an IV drip on Aug. 12, only accepting water.

Agriculture Minister Juan Carlos Loyo visited Brito last week to try to reach a new agreement, but the hunger striker was too weak to discuss the case. The minister said “Brito has always had the support of the government, and his land was never expropriated, as the private media have claimed.”

Loyo said he visited the hunger striker “in response to a request from his family. The meeting took place without any media stridency, with the spirit of seeing, once more, how we could help, for humanitarian reasons.”

“In his last few days, my father agreed to receive an IV drip and some medications, with the hope of engaging in talks to reach a solution with people from the government, but he didn’t hold out,” his daughter Ángela Brito told IPS.

The family said in a written statement that Brito “died in a military institution where he was being held against his will. The government of President Hugo Chávez ignored Franklin’s request, the clamour of his family and calls from international bodies to allow him access to medical assistance of his own choice and confidence.

“Franklin still lives on, in the fight of the Venezuelan people for the right to property, access to justice, and government respect for human rights. He is no longer flesh and blood, but has become a symbol for all of those whose rights have been trampled on, and who are offended, by the arrogance of those in power.”

Marino Alvarado, head of the Provea human rights group, said “Brito’s death is the consequence of an arrogant and intolerant manner of governing. His demands could have been resolved through talks, and by properly returning some hectares that were arbitrarily seized from him.”

Furthermore, she told IPS, “Attorney General Luisa Ortega asked that he be transferred to the military hospital with the purpose of protecting his life, but they ended up instead guaranteeing his right to die.”

The INTI said it had issued Brito the “corresponding land registration documents,” and stressed that as part of its agreements with him, he had been given a tractor, other equipment and inputs, and that workers had been sent in to fix fences and roads and clear land so he could farm it.

In videos taped in late 2009 and posted on YouTube, and in his last interview, in May, Brito said that when he was offered the compensation funds, the authorities did not give him certified copies of the documents, in order to “avoid acknowledging the cruelty of the delay, because that would have affected, I believe, the president’s image.”

In his last hunger strike, he demanded that President Chávez personally take up the issue, to reach a final solution.

In June, the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry called together representatives of international bodies to explain its point of view in the case. On that occasion, Alfredo Missair of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) said he had “never seen a state so worried about the rights of one single man.”

The Foro por la Vida, a coalition of human rights groups, expressed in a statement Tuesday its “emphatic condemnation of the Venezuelan authorities, who instead of guaranteeing the life and integrity of Brito, constantly encouraged impunity, making a disproportionate use of power to try to force him to back down from his just requests.

“The intransigence, arrogance in governing and lack of sensibility led to a result that sets a grave precedent in terms of the conduct of the public authorities in response to citizens’ demands,” it said.

Brito’s death coincided with the campaign for the Sept. 26 legislative elections, in which the opposition hopes to make a comeback, after boycotting the 2005 elections alleging a lack of transparency. International observers reported no irregularities at the time.

The Mesa de Unidad Democrática opposition coalition issued a statement Tuesday saying Brito was “a victim of the government’s bullying agrarian policies.”

In its land reform programme, the Chávez administration has redistributed both public land and privately-owned land to poor farmers. The property seized, with compensation, from large landholders was deemed to be idle, or its ownership could not be proven through legal land titles. Other countries carrying out agrarian reform efforts in the region, where there is a high concentration of land ownership, include Brazil and Bolivia.

Brito “chose the route of the hunger strike to try to gain respect for his rights, but instead of being listened to, he was repressed and submitted to the jurisdiction of a criminal court, as if he were committing a crime,” said Delsa Solórzano, the opposition coalition’s human rights director. She was referring to the legal decision to transfer him to the military hospital.

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