The Venezuelan embassy in Washington DC became a flash point in the struggle between the peace movement and Washington’s imperialist agenda. Activists who were living inside the embassy experienced what can only be described as a siege. A mob of right wing extremists surrounded the embassy and cooperated with the Secret Service and DC Metropolitan police to block activists from delivering food and supplies to the people inside. After more than a week of conflict, the embassy’s electricity and water were shut off. However, the activists inside made it clear that they would not be moved. Eventually, the State Department gave up on their siege tactics and instead raided the building and arrested four activists, in a brazen violation of international law.
History of the Occupation and Early Developments:
The embassy siege was an outgrowth of the political crisis in Venezuela, in which the United States recognized the unelected opposition leader, Juan Guaido, as interim president. Next, the United States began handing over property of the Venezuelan government in the United States to representatives of Guaido. This has included a military attaché and a diplomatic building. These events worried activists who feared that the Venezuelan embassy would be next.
In response, members of Code Pink, the ANSWER Coalition, and Popular Resistance contacted the Venezuelan government to request permission to occupy the embassy to block it from Guaido’s representatives. The Venezuelan government agreed, and on April 10, the Embassy Protection Collective was born. Dozens of activists made the embassy their home. At the time, Venezuelan diplomats continued to conduct their business in the building, but they were ordered to leave by the American government. By April 25, the collective was alone inside the building. The goal of the collective was to hold out long enough so that the US and Venezuela could enter into a Protective Power Agreement with a third country which would take control of the embassy until diplomatic relations could be restored.
At the time, things were peaceful. The activists were free to come and go as they please. Journalists could freely meet with the collective inside and tour the building. However, the peace was broken on April 30, when a mob of Guaido supporters arrived. They spewed rape threats, death threats and bigoted slurs. They even physically assaulted activists while the Secret Service stood by and did nothing. At the time, supporters of the collective maintained a presence directly in front of the embassy doors, where they put their bodies on the line to protect their allies inside.
The next day, May 1, Guaido’s “ambassador,” Carlos Vecchio arrived on the scene. He planned to take control of the embassy but was unable to do so thanks to the large presence of peace activists. Anya Parampil of the Grayzone Project confronted Vecchio, and attempted to ask him a question. The opposition responded by assaulting her. Vecchio did not utter a word to discourage such behavior. In fact, he went on Twitter and lied that the peace activists were the violent ones, despite witnessing violence from his own side. Vecchio fled the scene after delivering a speech that was drowned out by a sound system from inside the embassy.
The violence escalated in the following days. The opposition attempted to damage people’s hearing by blaring megaphones and banging pots and pans in their ears. At night, they would go for the eyes. They aggressively shined flashlights, strobe lights and laser pointers at people’s faces. Whenever embassy protectors came to the windows, they would be bombarded with light. These tactics have been thoroughly documented by activists and journalists inside and outside the embassy. A police officer was caught on video shining a flashlight into an embassy window to imitate these tactics.
The siege intensified when the opposition gained control of the sidewalk outside the embassy doors. This event marked a turning point, because it gave the opposition a number of strategic advantages. They could now fully surround the building, block food from entering, attempt to break inside the building and prevent members of the collective from reentering if they leave. The opposition began pounding on the doors, breaking security cameras and committing other acts of vandalism.
The Secret Service, and the State Department to which they answer, knew that storming the building would be a flagrant violation of the Vienna Convention. This is why they resorted to siege tactics instead. However, the Vienna Convention specifies that a host country must preserve the integrity of embassies. Therefore, allowing a mob to vandalize the embassy with impunity is a violation of international law. In addition, the plan to hand the embassy over to Guaido’s representatives would also violate the Vienna Convention because the building is the lawful property of the ruling Venezuelan government.
Selective concerns for international law seem to have shaped the State Department’s tactics, leading them to attempt to starve out the Embassy Protection Collective. The opposition formed human chains to prevent supplies from getting through. They have also assaulted embassy protection supporters who have attempted to deliver food and supplies. Security forces directly participated in these siege tactics. Ariel Gold of Code Pink was arrested and charged with “throwing missiles” when she tried to throw bread to the embassy protectors. Gerry Condon, president of Veterans for Peace, was tackled to the ground by the Secret Service and left bloodied when he tried to deliver a cucumber.
The de facto embargo has not been entirely successful. Peace activists succeeded numerous times in delivering food and other supplies to the embassy. Creative methods were employed, such as pulley systems and ropes tied to backpacks. Still, the Embassy Protection Collective had to resort to rationing food. Many activists called the Secret Service to demand they let food in. The Secret Service responded with a prepared statement claiming that they were not blocking food. This statement has been disproven by abundant video footage showing officers blocking supplies and even throwing food away.
Who Were the Opposition?
The opposition, who largely consisted of people of Venezuelan, Cuban and Nicaraguan backgrounds, called the Embassy Protection Collective “invaders” and “appropriators.” They condemned the activists inside for allegedly speaking on behalf of Venezuelans. It is the opposition, they argue, that truly represents the will of the Venezuelan people. However, President Nicolas Maduro was elected in 2018 with 68% of the vote, in an election determined to be fair by over 150 election observers. Perhaps it is those millions of voters who truly represent the will of the Venezuelan people. The embassy protectors have received praise from people in Venezuela who remain loyal to their elected government.
However, the opposition will not tell you about the millions of people who defend their country from imperialism. In fact, they have shown their complete and utter contempt for the majority of Venezuelans. The vile, boastful and shameless bigotry on display outside the embassy was one constant reminder of this contempt. Latina women were told that their facial features were too indigenous, and therefore ugly and inferior. Alina Duarte of Telesur filmed a man as he spewed racist and sexist bile at her. He claimed that he was prettier than her because he is white, whereas she was ugly because she is indigenous. He peppered his rant with misogynistic and racist slurs. Duarte later released photos of the door of her apartment, showing that the opposition had attempted to break in.
Anti-black racism was also proudly on display. Black activists were compared to monkeys and called racial slurs. One member of the opposition said that he owns a business in which he refuses to hire black people. These attitudes are consistent with the racism that runs rampant in Venezuela, particularly among members of the opposition. The opposition in Venezuela has often compared Chavez to a monkey and Maduro to a gorilla. In 2017, a young man named Orlando Figuera was lit on fire by the opposition. His killers assumed he was a supporter of the Bolivarian project because of his black skin.
Bigotry against the LGBT community was another common theme in the attacks against peace activists. Oppositionists frequently punctuated their threats and condemnations with anti-gay slurs. A non-binary supporter of the collective said they received more anti-LGBT insults in one week outside the embassy than they received in the past two years. A trans activist was called “that thing.” Other members of the opposition, who have a better understanding of optics and PR, tried to rectify the situation by bringing out rainbow flags. Still, homophobia and transphobia continued.
Oppositionists with backgrounds in PR and marketing attempted to put themselves front and center in order to control the narrative. They painted over the bigoted right-wing mob with an image of liberalism and identity politics. These well connected strategists argued that their position had nothing to do with a left-right divide, nothing to do with class and nothing to do with race. It was simply a matter of freedom versus dictatorship.
The website AskAVenezuelan.com emerged as the voice of the mob. When confronted about the upper class character of the opposition, this site’s Twitter account conceded the point. They tweeted “#AskAnUpperClassVenezuelan” and argued that only upper class Venezuelans could be the voice of the Venezuelan people, because the rest are trapped under Maduro. The site is owned by Nelli Romero, a DC based lobbyist and business owner. Romero supports not only sanctions on Venezuela, but a military invasion. These policies are opposed by the overwhelming majority of the Venezuelan people, even those who oppose Maduro.
Some members of the opposition stand to financially benefit from a military invasion of Venezuela. A Senior Principal Architect at Raytheon was identified among the crowd. Raytheon is one of the world’s largest and most notorious arms manufacturers, and has a direct stake in promoting wars around the world. Other oppositionists include a marketing strategist for the Inter-American Development Bank and a senior manager for the International Finance Corporation. These neoliberal institutions drive austerity and privatization in Latin America while cutting environmental protections. There were also members of right-wing think tanks and interventionist lobbying groups among the mob sieging the embassy.
These violent, bigoted, well-connected and well-financed oppositionists worked hand and glove with the Secret Services and DC Metropolitan Police. As one Secret Service officer was overheard saying, the pro-Guaido crowd is “essentially US government.” The opposition was allowed to construct a whole encampment of tents around the embassy whereas peace activists were arrested for putting up tents. Three members of the opposition broke into the embassy, and one smashed up a room, but none were arrested. Another choked a peace activist on camera, but the Secret Service refused to arrest him. On May 6, the Secret Service took the bizarre action of chopping down two trees across the street from the embassy. This was done in response to members of NJ Anti-War Agenda and American Party of Labor who used one of those trees to hang a large banner.
The End of the Occupation:
Things took a turn for the worse when the electricity was shut off at the embassy on May 8. This action was carried out by the electric company, Pepco, on the order of Carlos Vecchio. The right wing mob celebrated, but the embassy protectors inside released a video stating that they had no intention of leaving. Then, on May 11, the water was shut off. It is unclear who is responsible for the shutoff. DC Water denies any responsibility for the action. The water proved to be a more critical blow than the electricity. On the same day that the water stopped running, several members of the collective exited the building. They later explained that this was a mutual decision among the collective to best preserve resources.
On May 13, a trespassing notice was placed on the embassy. The notice declared that the US government does not recognize the “former Maduro regime” and instead recognizes Guaido’s representatives as the lawful owners of the building. Embassy protectors were told to leave the building or face arrest. Interestingly, the notice had no letterhead, no stamp and no signatures. The government agency responsible for producing the document clearly did not want to be identified.
It soon became clear that security forces were preparing to break into the building. It seemed arrests were imminent. As a result, some of the people inside the building, including two embedded journalists, exited. This left only four members of the Embassy Protection Collective inside the embassy. That night, security forces entered the building, but no arrests were made. The officers repeatedly asked the embassy protectors if they would leave voluntarily. Each time, the activists told them “no” and made their case for why they must stay. The officers then left the building and put a new lock on the doors.
This victory for the Embassy Protection Collective would be short lived. The authorities would be back inside the building in a few days. But before then, on May 15, Reverend Jesse Jackson arrived at the embassy to support the collective. He and his team successfully delivered four bags of food, water and supplies to the embassy. The police stood by and allowed this to happen. Oppositionists, on the other hand, tried to steal the supplies and block their passage, but were unsuccessful. The very next morning, just as spirits were high, the authorities raided the building and arrested the four remaining protectors.
The four activists were charged with a Class A misdemeanor – interfering with a federal law enforcement agent engaged in protective functions. The charge carries a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a $1000 fine. Interestingly, the four were not charged with trespassing, despite the trespassing notice. According to Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, legal counsel for the collective, the government wanted to avoid the trespassing charge because they did not want to enter a legal battle over who owns the building. The four are due back in court on June 12.
At the time of writing (May 20), Guaido’s representatives have not yet entered the building. The possibility that the conflict will be resolved with a Protective Power Agreement remains on the table. Still, even if such an agreement is not met, and the embassy does fall to coup forces, the embassy protectors have achieved something remarkable. They have shown that the anti-war movement is alive and well, and that the methods of direct action and civil disobedience remain viable. The collective put the US government in a position to expose itself as a repeated violator of international law. What was meant to be a quiet transfer of diplomatic authority turned into a drawn out siege in which the State Department’s dirty tactics were put on full display for the world to see.
Now, the Trump administration is turning its fury against Iran and threatening the complete destruction of that country. We have already seen what interventionist wars have done to Iraq and Libya, and what covert coups have done to countries like Honduras. We must not allow the rapacious US war machine to destroy Venezuela, Iran or any other country. Actions like those taken by the Embassy Protection Collective are vital for restraining the dark impulses of empire. As Che Guevara famously said, “I envy you. You North Americans are very lucky. You are fighting the most important fight of all – you live in the heart of the beast.”
Categories: U.S. News