Hunger striker dies in Venezuela


A VENEZUELAN farmer has died after months on hunger strike in protest at the seizure of his farm in 2003 during a government land reform drive.

Franklin Brito suffered a heart attack in a military hospital in the capital Caracas on Monday night, according to family members. He had demanded that president Hugo Chávez compensate him for the seizure of his holding in the south of the country where he had grown yams and watermelons.

In a statement his family said Mr Brito “lives on in the struggle of the Venezuelan people for the right to property, access to justice, for liberty and the respect of governments for human rights, both collective and individual”.

Recent photos showed a severely emaciated Mr Brito, and his family said the father of four’s weight had dropped to just 35kg. The 49-year-old farmer, who had undertaken eight hunger strikes since 2005, had become a hero for many opponents of Mr Chávez’s rule who say the firebrand left-winger is turning the country into a Cuban-style socialist dictatorship.

But the government said Mr Brito did not have legal title to the land seized and was trying to extort money from it. It also claimed he was mentally unstable. As well as the series of fasts which started in 2005 Mr Brito had once sewn up his mouth and cut off one of his fingers on live television.

Mr Brito suspended his protest last December after the government offered to return the farm but resumed it shortly afterwards saying that while authorities were ready to give him back his land they refused to hand over the title deeds or compensate him for the six years during which it was nationalised. State television later showed a video in which it claimed Mr Brito demanded €550,000 to call off his protest.

The government of Mr Chávez has nationalised roughly 2.5 million hectares in recent years as part of a land reform drive which it says is aimed at reversing centuries of rural inequality.

But the reform, combined with increased government control over the economy, has exacerbated food shortages in the country with the government forced to step up imports despite abundant land and a tropical climate.

The death of Mr Brito comes just four weeks ahead of midterm elections in which the opposition hopes to capitalise on growing alarm at spiralling urban violence and economic mismanagement.