May 20, 2013
Venezuela says US is meddling in hunger strikes
Venezuela accused the United States of meddling in connection with student hunger strikes opposed to President Hugo Chávez and said Washington was trying to create "something like a virtual Egypt" in Venezuela.
A dozen students started a hunger strike outside the Caracas offices of the Organization of American States (OAS) 18 days ago, saying they wanted its Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza to visit to investigate cases of political prisoners.
The original demonstrators have since been joined by other students.
On Thursday, the US State Department urged Venezuela to allow a visit by Insulza, drawing a rebuke from the government, which says there are no political prisoners in the country.
"We reject the United States coming to involve itself in our problems," Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro told reporters, adding that Washington and right-wing Venezuelan groups based in Miami were trying to destabilize the Chávez government.
"They're trying to create a false scenario, something like a virtual Egypt," Maduro said, referring to the huge protests that toppled Egypt's Hosni Mubarak after 30 years in power.
In a separate statement, Maduro said, "We blame the US government and Venezuelan ultra-right groups, based in Miami, of trying to create destabilization or high conflict to impose a set of opinions to present Venezuela in a situation like that of Egypt, but in a virtual manner."
Hunger strikes have been a common form of protest against the president of OPEC member Venezuela but do not normally last long. Last year, however, farmer Franklin Brito starved himself to death in a protest over land he said had been seized illegally by the government.
Tensions between Caracas and Washington have not improved much under US President Barack Obama, and the two countries currently do not have ambassadors in each other's capitals.
Supporters of Chávez say the students are funded by Washington, which finances some local civil society groups in Venezuela as part of efforts to promote democracy.
The student protesters are angered by cases including that of jailed judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni, whose imprisonment since late 2009 was a cause celebre for opponents of Chávez. She was moved to house arrest earlier this month.
Chávez has mocked critics who draw parallels between his government and Egypt under Mubarak, pointing out he has won all but one of a dozen national votes since 1998.
Chávez's larger-than-life personality, micro-management of domestic affairs, long-running speeches and verbal attacks on rivals have lead to frequent criticism of authoritarianism.
Supporters say he has put power in the hands of the country's poor majority after decades of rule by a corrupt elite. Massive protests in 2002 ended with a short-lived coup against the president that was quickly reversed.
In recent years Venezuela's opposition has focused on building a democratic political movement to challenge Chávez at the ballot box, rather than in the streets.