Venezuelan protesters plaster signs on one of the doors of the Venezuelan embassy in Washington, D.C.

Venezuelan protesters plaster signs on one of the doors of the Venezuelan embassy in Washington, D.C. | M. Scott Mahaskey/POLITICO

Washington And The World

‘We Are Going To Take Over the Premises’

The situation at the Venezuelan Embassy has spiraled out of control, and international law doesn’t know what should come next.

Continue to article content

The Venezuelan crisis, a months-long standoff in which opposition forces have tried to wrest control of an economically spiraling country from the socialist president, is more than 2,000 miles away from the quiet environs of 30th and M streets in upscale Georgetown. But for the past three weeks, the conflict has erupted into its own pocket of chaos—one that reflects not only the unrest in its home country, but the bizarre gray area of Washington, D.C.’s diplomatic properties.

The Embassy of Venezuela’s previous occupants, the diplomatic corps of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, have been gone since April 24, after the White House revoked their status and ordered them to leave the building. They left—but not before inviting in a collection of activists as one last act of resistance from the embattled regime. For almost a month, the distinguished-looking five-story brick building has been occupied by more than three dozen activists from a collection of American anti-interventionist groups, cooking, sleeping and even watching “Game of Thrones” inside. By day, they hang banners from the windows and shout slogans through amplifiers.

Story Continued Below

Facing off against them have been Venezuelan émigrés outside the embassy, at times numbering in the hundreds, who support the government of U.S.-recognized President Juan Guaidó—and who claim the building belongs to them. Since last week, Venezuelans have been staying outside the building in tents, blocking the entrances to the embassy and at times confronting and harassing the leftist demonstrators face to face.

As the face-off drags on, attracting attention from U.S. and international outlets in Washington, an unanswered question looms over the street: When will the U.S.-recognized ambassador swoop in to take the building—and who will seize it for him?

So far, dozens of Secret Service and local police officers have completely surrounded the area, but they have not gone inside the building. Francisco Márquez, the political adviser to the Guaidó-appointed, Trump-approved ambassador, Carlos Vecchio, has been involved in conversations about the embassy with the State Department. Márquez told Politico Magazine on Tuesday that there was no question his team would take control of the embassy “very soon.”

When, and how they do it, turns on a thorny international law question: Who owns an embassy when it is between governments? It might seem trivial in the middle of an international political and humanitarian crisis. But the scene at the embassy is emblematic of the problems that have roiled American politics and foreign policy on the issue of Venezuela in the five months since Guaidó declared Maduro’s presidency illegitimate.

For instance, who gets to call themselves “the people?”

“It’s ironic,” Freddy Cova, a 25-year-old Venezuelan protester who has been at the embassy since last week, said in an interview. “They call themselves the people’s defenders when in fact, there’s not even one Venezuelan in there. How can they tell us, the Venezuelan community, that they know what’s best for us?” In Venezuela, though the number of people who say they recognize Guaidó as the legitimate president has dwindled to about 50 percent since January, his approval remains much stronger than Maduro’s abysmal 4 percent.

And just what does “noninterventionism” mean when a government loses popular support—and still refuses to leave?

While most Venezuelans oppose Maduro, Guaidó proclaimed himself president in January, using a provision in the country’s constitution that allows the Venezuelan National Assembly to temporarily assume the presidency—a move that the anti-interventionist groups roundly reject because he hasn’t been elected to the office. “This is about democracy for us,” Ariel Gold, co-director of Code Pink, one of the anti-interventionist groups at the embassy supporting Maduro, said in an interview. She says that Guaidó, who is also the president of the Venezuelan National Assembly, is illegitimate because Maduro won last year’s checkered elections. “I would be up in arms if Germany or any country said, ‘You know what? Popular vote, you know, blah, blah, blah—we’ve decided that Pelosi gets to run this embassy.’”

Maduro Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza, who has Skyped with the leftists and said they are welcome to stay in the embassy, agrees. He reiterated his support for the anti-interventionist activists in a speech on April 26: “How crazy would it be to enter [the embassy] illegally,” referencing potential U.S. government efforts to evict the activist groups. “Have we proposed doing that in the U.S. Embassy here in Caracas? Never.” (The U.S. Embassy in Caracas has been closed since the State Department withdrew its diplomats from there in mid-March.) Meanwhile, in Venezuela, Maduro’s government has overseen a sharp and widely documented decline in political rights, civil liberties and freedom of expression—hardly an indication that the government has much popular support.

***

As a point of law, the activists inside the embassy—who call themselves the Embassy Protection Collective and include Code Pink, ANSWER Coalition, Popular Resistance and the Black Alliance for Peace—say they are shielded by a provision of international law that prohibits police from entering a diplomatic premise belonging to a foreign government without its consent. It’s the same provision that once precluded Turkish police from entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul to investigate the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi last October, for instance. It’s also the provision that allowed WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to seek political asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London and thus avoid extradition from England to Sweden.

The fact that the anti-interventionist activists at the Venezuelan Embassy were invited to stay by representatives from Maduro’s government, which still controls the Venezuelan state, also means they are allowed to stay, in their view. They dismiss Carlos Vecchio, the Guaidó-appointed, Trump-credentialed ambassador, as nothing more than a “puppet.”

But legal experts say none of this means the activists have a right to occupy the embassy. Yes, the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations states that the premises of an embassy are “inviolable,” and that “agents of the receiving State may not enter them, except with the consent of the head of the mission.” But legal experts consulted by Politico Magazine, including some who have advised the State Department and the United Nations on legal issues, are highly skeptical that the embassy collective currently living there is protected by international law.

Ashley Deeks, a law professor at the University of Virginia and a member of the State Department’s advisory committee on international law, says that in this case the head of state—according to Trump—is Guaidó, and so his appointees “can actually give consent to the U.S. government to go into the Venezuelan Embassy and potentially remove uninvited guests.” And in this case, she said, “the U.S. government gets to decide, since they are a state, and the Code Pink protesters are not.” In an email, a State Department official clarified the department’s view that the Guaidó-led government has legal authority over the embassy and that it “considers any unauthorized individuals on the property to be trespassers.”

At least three other legal experts, including two former State Department lawyers, agreed with that characterization in interviews with Politico Magazine. But the catch is that while entering the embassy to expel the protesters may be permissible from the U.S. perspective, there may be worldwide repercussions as a result. “The United States shouldn’t take that extraordinary move lightly in light of Maduro’s continued de facto control of Venezuela,” Brian Egan, a State Department legal adviser who worked under President Barack Obama, wrote in an email exchange. “The move would be seen by Maduro supporters as an ‘invasion’ of the Venezuelan embassy ... and could provoke those who remain sympathetic to Maduro to retaliate, perhaps by attempting actions against U.S. diplomatic facilities abroad.”

There’s another vulnerability. One of Guaidó’s closest allies, the famed opposition leader and political prisoner Leopoldo López, who escaped house arrest on the same day as protests began here in the embassy, has taken refuge in the Spanish Consulate in Caracas. Guaidó and his team have worried Maduro might try to break in and arrest him. “If the regime does something at the Spanish Consulate in Caracas, it would be violating the Vienna Convention—it would be a severe mistake to kidnap a guest,” Guaidó told reporters on Friday in Venezuela.

Márquez, Vecchio’s political adviser, says these potentially negative consequences do not affect the decision to seize the building, which Vecchio has requested since he began his work as Guaidó’s man in Washington. (Vecchio has also taken over two military attachés and the Venezuelan Consulate in New York City.) “We are going to take over the premises, there’s no doubt about it,” Márquez said. “There is no scenario where the embassy is not under our control.”

On the ground outside the embassy, though, the often chaotic crowd tells a different story about who is in control—or isn’t. Some antiwar activists accuse the Venezuelans of being right-wing, fascist thugs, and the opposition protesters’ yells are sometimes punctuated with racism, sexism and homophobia. Gold has accused a pro-Guaidó activist of sexual harrassment, while Venezuelans have denounced a leftist who pushed back against a pregnant woman. At night, sirens blare almost constantly from opposition megaphones, and some Venezuelans have been seen shining flashlights and strobe lights into leftists’ eyes.

***

Regardless of what the Trump administration does about the embassy, it will still be unclear what the Trump administration plans to do on Venezuela.

The United States has provided more than $195 million in humanitarian aid since last year, according to official figures, and earlier this year instituted sanctions prohibiting business with the country’s oil sector. (Until January, the United States was Venezuela’s main oil consumer.) The protesters have been clear that they oppose these sanctions, along with others imposed by the Trump and Obama administrations. But beyond the aid and sanctions, the administration’s plan is less clear. Trump has not yet used his oft-mentioned “military option” in Venezuela, although he and other hawkish Republican allies and administration figures have repeatedly noted it’s “on the table.”

On Tuesday, the Trump administration lifted sanctions against the former leader of Venezuela’s intelligence service for his collaboration in last week’s attempted military takeover, in which Guaidó unsuccessfully tried to seize control of presidential Miraflores palace. It was a bid to recruit the backing of military officers for Guaidó, who has offered amnesty to Maduro and his allies if they choose to exit.

But neither the sanctions nor talk of regime change has attracted the kind of bipartisan consensus that humanitarian crises normally elicit, because they are hobbled by the same kinds of splits on display at the embassy. Republicans have been nearly united in their staunch support of economic and sometimes military action, but Democrats have not been as quick to react. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Rep. Donna Shalala of Florida have met with Vecchio and sent messages of support, but progressives have been more cautious. Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar has been outspoken on the issue, blaming Venezuela’s current problems on past U.S. interventions and opposing both sanctions and regime change in a recent interview. In response, Vice President Mike Pence took quickly to Twitter to say that Omar “doesn’t know what she’s talking about” on Venezuela. In recent weeks, Bernie Sanders’ and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s equivocating answers on whether Maduro or Guaidó is the legitimate president have drawn widespread condemnation.

Which brings us back to the embassy, where protesters are having the same debate about whether U.S. intervention will do more to help or hurt Venezuela. It was the clash I observed between Ana Galavis, a Venezuelan protester at the embassy whose son is still in her native country, and a tall, apparently U.S. man from the protection collective.

Galavis showed the man a cardboard sign she was wearing that bore a photo of a dilapidated hospital where a woman was giving birth on the floor, presumably because of a lack of beds. As Venezuela’s economy has worsened in the past decade, the country’s health care system has been wracked by shortages of medicine and supplies and an exodus of thousands of doctors.

“Tell him this has been going on for 15 years,” she told another Venezuelan, who was translating.

“This is a doing of American imperialism,” the man, who was wearing a Che Guevara button, responded. “This is how you destabilize a country.”

“This is not about socialism, or communism—this is about human rights,” Galavis, a restaurant worker, said.

Meanwhile, Vecchio’s team hopes to start issuing identification cards and validating expired Venezuelan passports, which Maduro stopped renewing more than a year ago. The new diplomatic team will also start managing Venezuelan assets in the United States, such as the oil company Citgo, according to Márquez. And they will continue putting international pressure on other countries and the United Nations to recognize Guaidó’s government. “This is the first embassy of a new republic,” Márquez said.

Jump to sidebar section