CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — A hunger strike by two high-profile imprisoned politicians is generating excitement among members of a Venezuelan opposition that has seemed mostly disengaged since 2014's fiery protests.
Seven students have even spent the past week camped out in the dusty front yard of a Caracas church drinking nothing but water and Pedialyte in sympathy with jailed former mayors Leopoldo Lopez and Daniel Ceballos, who announced their hunger strike on May 23.
"We have to be the public face," said 28-year-old Julio Rivas, who was clammy and red-eyed after eight days of fasting. "We know people can't see Lopez and know that he's wasting away. So we're taking up his cause."
Lopez, 44, announced the hunger strike via a video leaked from a military prison. He has been jailed for 15 months on charges related to his role in leading sometimes bloody protests against Venezuela's socialist administration in the spring of 2014.
He and Ceballos, 31, are demanding the release of jailed opposition leaders like themselves whom human rights groups consider political prisoners. They also are calling on officials to set a date for legislative elections that the law dictates must be held before the end of the year.
Their families say the men are drinking only water and a nutrient serum, though officials have not confirmed this. Lopez's family says he has lost more than 10 pounds and was brought to a Monday court date in an ambulance. Ceballos' supporters say his health also has deteriorated.
Critics of President Nicolas Maduro say his administration has jailed dozens of activists for speaking against him. At least three other imprisoned opposition members are reported to have joined in the strike.
Maduro has said he will not release the prisoners, whom he accuses of conspiring to launch a coup against his democratically elected administration.
State ombudsman Tarek Saab said the two men should end their protest and not endanger their health.
"There are plenty of opportunities to practice politics in Venezuela," he said in a televised interview Monday
The country's opposition coalition has vacillated in the face of this new rallying call from the prisoners. It declined to endorse a day of protest held last weekend at Lopez's urging. The event drew thousands into the streets in the largest display of discontent since flaming barricades choked Venezuela's major cities in 2014.
The widespread shortages, soaring inflation and worsening violent crime that provoked those sometimes deadly protests have only worsened in the last year and a half, but people have been reluctant to demonstrate publicly. Even the arrest of Caracas' opposition mayor in February sparked only muted protests.
On Thursday, the U.S. State Department released a statement saying it was "deeply troubled" by reports of Ceballos' health deteriorating. It also repeated its call for the immediate release of the two former mayors "and the other political prisoners currently in detention in Venezuela."
A day earlier, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights urged Venezuela to take the unusual step of allowing all prisoners on hunger strike to confer with the doctors of their choice, and expressed particular worry about Ceballos.
The nutrient serum the hunger strikers are drinking should help preserve their health over the short term, but they still will run serious risks if they continue their protest, according to Jacob Appel, a doctor and bioethicist based at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.
"What should not be lost upon people is that hunger strikes are dangerous," he said. "Strikers often compromise their health and sometimes die."
If the prisoners continue in their strike, the administration could be faced with a difficult choice. Most major medical organizations condemn forced feeding, and consider it a violation of a physicians' ethics when it is done against a prisoner's wishes.
At the young people's encampment in a wealthy neighborhood in eastern Caracas, the protesters ranging from 20 to 30 years old are passing their days and nights sleeping, texting and reading magazines on a pile of blankets. Local health officials said that on Thursday they would send a paramedic to monitor their health around the clock.
Rivas, a legislator from northern Carabobo state, is leading the group. He has been receiving periodic visits from his wife, who is taking care of the couple's year-old daughter.
"She's worried for me, but this is something we feel we have to do for our brothers. We won't stop until they are free," he said.
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