Anatomy of a hunger strike

Bolivian President Evo Morales’ political protest shows that nonviolence is not dead — why a hunger strike holds sway.

Originally, this column was intended to be a criticism of Bolivian President Evo MoralesâÄô decision last Thursday to embark on a hunger strike, but I now bite my tongue. Just a few short hours before my commentary is due to my editor, the headlines bark a Morales victory. In response to MoralesâÄô five-day hunger strike, the Bolivian congress has agreed to pass a law that allows new elections to be held Dec. 6. The election law received overwhelming support in a January referendum, but the bill remained controversial within the congress. Under BoliviaâÄôs new constitution, Morales is able to run for a second five-year term as president. Opposition parties argued that the bill also gives 14 congressional seats to minority indigenous groups âÄî a move that basically ensures a Morales re-election. Yet faced with a future emaciated president and hundreds of his followers across Bolivia, congress has caved. Why? There is something to be said about a hunger strike. It is one of the most compelling and powerful forms of protest that we have; the history of the world is heavy with those who have given up food (and sometimes their lives) in pursuit of a just cause and the gruesome, self-abusive nature of their actions almost always leaves a strong residue of guilt on our conscience for many years to come. That is their intent. As Northern Ireland Irish Republican Army hunger striker Bobby Sands wrote days before his end, âÄúOur revenge will be the laughter of our children.âÄù Historically, fasting has been a method of calling attention to injustice. In both India and Ireland, there are early records of people fasting on the doorsteps of their debtors in order to attract shame, but hunger striking has primarily evolved in order to achieve a certain political gain. British and American suffragettes of the early 20th century were force-fed after their refusal to take food in prison. Both Gandhi and the IRA are famous for fasting and more recent occurrences include Iranian journalist Akbar Ganji and the hunger strikers of Guantanamo Bay. In all of these examples, the hunger strikers are those who face exceedingly desperate circumstances, such as prison or persecution, and have few alternative means of expressing their individual will. A hunger strike is seen as a poignant last choice. This was my primary discontent with MoralesâÄô initiative to fast. He is the president of a country, a man in position of potent power, and though he may be hampered by the pettiness of his congressional counterparts, he is certainly not a man of desperation. He has plenty of other effective options of dissent at his disposal that do not make a mockery of those who are truly at their last resort. To expand this point, I strongly recommend that you see Steve McQueenâÄôs 2008 release, âÄúHunger ,âÄù which tells the story of the 1981 IRA hunger strikes of the Maze Prison through the eyes of its most famous participant, Bobby Sands. Sands died on May 5, 1981 after 66 days on hunger strike, but what he and his fellow inmates endured while in person was far more hellish than his deathbed. Severe beatings and cruel humiliation were delivered daily. Without political prisoner status, they were at the mercy of their captors. However, Morales may be experiencing a mental prison. Just because you cannot see oppression doesnâÄôt mean itâÄôs not there. Morales is an Aymara Indian and the first indigenous president of Bolivia, so he knows a thing or two about coming from the bottom to the top. He is a former union organizer and a champion of heath care and social spending, much to the dismay of many of BoliviaâÄôs deep-seated neoliberal bureaucrats. Because of the latter, he has run into many roadblocks as president within his country and with the world at large. (Any newspaper will tell you that Morales is not a favorable U.S. commodity). Initially, I viewed the commencement of last ThursdayâÄôs hunger strike as a childish move by Morales. It appeared to be a measure wholly inappropriate for the circumstances and futile, at best. Even when the political climate is ripe in their favor, many hunger strikers die or call off their strike before achieving their aims. Yet I stand corrected. Morales won âÄî and for this, I am secretly elated. The perseverance of the individual and collective human spirit has proven to be a palpable power for change. Yes, the fast was only for five days, but the power of a hunger strike lies in its portents. History has shown us what will come. For the first three days, your body will still be using the glucose that you have stored up inside you. Next, your liver will enter ketosis and start using up most of your body fat. By three weeks, you will have entered starvation mode and your body will be mining nutrients from your muscles and vital organs. If you are still alive by day 70, you will be a shell of a human being. A hunger strike is a like a form of self-induced cancer, slow and promising certain death. Its effectiveness lies in the fact that as many who have lost loved ones to cancer will tell you, it is an agonizing experience to watch someone slip away from you, one day at a time. There is no way to stop a suicide bomber. He has already made the decision to take his own life and others. It is only in the aftermath that you realize his intent. His protest is weak. It takes far more bravery to starve yourself for a cause than to blow yourself up in the street. More often than not, a suicide bomber only induces a terrible anger that negates the true meaning behind his actions, but the longevity of a hunger strikerâÄôs wholly personal demise delivers extensive publicity and curious brand of prolonged, horrifying grief. This column is not meant to be a rallying cry for the hunger strike, but what I am saying is: non-violence speaks. Ashley Dresser welcomes comments at [email protected]