Like Venezuela’s Presidency, D.C. Embassy Is in Limbo

Left-wing protesters occupy the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington while the Secret Service looks on.

A protester sits on a window of the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington on April 25.
A protester sits on a window of the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington on April 25. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Two dozen people milled outside the upscale brick building, surrounding its entrance and waving protest signs while they took turns with the megaphone. Above them was the Venezuelan flag lolling the breeze and handmade banners that read “No war for oil,” “Stop the coup,” and “End the deadly sanctions.”

A half-block away, U.S. Secret Service police vehicles idled, and their drivers gazed at what has become an unusual showdown over the Trump administration’s Venezuela policy.

For over two weeks, a group of left-wing protesters have occupied the embassy of Venezuela, a four-story house about a mile from the White House in Washington’s posh Georgetown neighborhood.

It is a small standoff that in some respects echoes what is happening over 2,000 miles away in Caracas, where Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaidó remain locked in a tense stalemate over who claims authority of the country’s government.

After U.S. President Donald Trump declared Maduro’s rule invalid in January and backed opposition leader Guaidó, Maduro denounced the United States and recalled his diplomats in Washington.

As they left, they handed over the keys to the embassy to the protesters in one last jab to the Trump administration. The protesters have vowed to occupy it indefinitely (or at least until police arrest them) and denounce what they see as an illegal U.S. coup against Maduro’s government. For over two weeks, the protesters have sat in the building, 24 hours a day, blocking Guaidó’s newly appointed diplomats to Washington from moving into the embassy.

They locked the front doors with bike locks and heavy chains, plastering signs along the entrance saying, in a nod to Maduro, “This embassy belongs to the elected government of Venezuela.”

Medea Benjamin, one of the protest organizers, said they first asked Maduro’s outgoing diplomats for permission to take over. “They said, ‘Okay, come in,’” she told Foreign Policy. Clad in all pink garb in a nod to her role as a co-founder of the anti-war protest group Code Pink, Benjamin pushed a sign around her neck that read “Guaidó not welcome here” to the side to reach in her pocket and pull out the Datawatch access card the Venezuelan diplomat handed her. “Yes, we have access to the building,” she said.

Under Maduro’s rule, Venezuela has spiraled into an economic collapse and political crisis, fueling a massive humanitarian crisis and exodus of refugees. The United States, governments of U.S. allies and partners, and human rights groups have accused Maduro’s regime of widespread human rights violations, election-rigging, and rampant corruption that has looted the national economy. None of that seems to faze the protestors.

“My issue is not about the Maduro government, my issue is about my government,” said Benjamin when pressed on the Venezuelan government’s human rights abuses. “It is not our job as U.S. citizens to decide how to people are going to govern themselves. It is our job to stop our government from interfering.”

The U.S. State Department gave diplomats loyal to Maduro until April 24 to leave the country. But a day after the deadline, U.S. Secret Service officers stuck to watching the building from a small distance, though protesters expect to be evicted soon.

The State Department and U.S. Secret Service did not respond to request for comment.

Benjamin said she and other protesters are ready to be arrested. So far, the Secret Service hasn’t made any moves, but that could change.

Benjamin said at night, she sleeps on the couch inside the embassy, and she invites in guest speakers to talk to their small group of protesters. On Wednesday night, she said, former CIA officer John Kiriakou came and spoke to them at the embassy about U.S. imperialism. Kiriakou spent 23 months in prison from 2013 to 2015 for disclosing classified information on the CIA’s secret torture program.

Over 50 countries followed the United States in recognizing Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president since January. But their hopes of a quick and clean ouster of Maduro have faded as the months dragged on. Maduro has stubbornly clung to power, with the support of most of the security forces and forces from Cuba, as well as financial backing from Russia and China.

While some international institutions such as the Organization of American States recognize Guaidó, the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund still recognize Maduro as Venezuela’s legitimate ruler, further complicating the diplomatic standoff.

Elliott Abrams, Trump’s envoy on Venezuela, said the Maduro regime must “come to an end” for Venezuela to recover during an event on Thursday alongside Carlos Vecchio, Guaidó’s envoy to Washington.

“Once Venezuela is free of the Maduro regime, its Cuban enforcers, and its thugs, and censorship is ended and political prisoners are freed, the time will have arrived to prepare for free elections,” Abrams said in remarks at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank.

Guaidó’s interim government, Abrams said, has “begun the critical work that will lead Venezuela back from ruin to liberty and prosperity. We support his leadership fully.”

But the stalemate drags on between Maduro and Guaidó, Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis is worsening.

Many Venezuelans lack access to basic food and medical care. Maduro has violently cracked down on protests, and his security forces “have committed serious abuses against detainees that in some cases amount to torture—including severe beatings, electric shocks, asphyxiation, and sexual abuse,” according to a 2019 report from Human Rights Watch.

Maduro in February also blocked the delivery of humanitarian aid from the United States and other countries into Venezuela, worsening the crisis.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that by February of this year, 3.4 million Venezuelan refugees and migrants had fled, most to neighboring countries in Latin America.

The Trump administration has slapped sanctions on Venezuela’s oil and banking sectors, as well as officials loyal to Maduro in an effort to isolate him and turn his close supporters against him.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has dismissed questions about the humanitarian impact of U.S. sanctions and says Maduro is entirely to blame for the country’s crisis. When a reporter asked Pompeo this month about whether Western sanctions could exacerbate the refugee and humanitarian crisis, he responded: “Your question showed an incredible lack of understanding … You shouldn’t ask questions like that.”

“The responsibility for these refugees lies squarely with Nicolás Maduro, not any policies that any democratic nation has taken with our deep intent to make lives better for the Venezuelan people,” said Pompeo, who was in Peru at the time on a tour of South America.

“A hundred percent of the refugee challenge that is faced by Peru and Colombia is the direct result of the Russians, the Cubans, and Nicolás Maduro,” he said.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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