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Anti-war activists have occupied the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington for nearly a month now, with the hope of preventing the diplomatic staff of opposition leader Juan Guaidó from taking up posts while President Nicolás Maduro is still in office. Others, outside, are protesting the occupation.
Venezuelans from all over the Washington region have gathered at the embassy, critical of what they see as another U.S. intervention in foreign politics — playing out in miniature.
So, how will this all end? And who has jurisdiction over Washington’s embassies anyway?
Marissa Lang from The Washington Post joins us to discuss.
Produced by Julie Depenbrock
- Marissa Lang Local Reporter, Washington Post; @Marissa_Jae
- Medea Benjamin Co-Founder, CODEPINK; Co-Founder, Global Exchange; @medeabenjamin
- Dilianna Bustillos Protester, Ask A Venezuelan
Marissa Lang's Reporting
Demonstrators remained locked inside the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington, D.C., on May 14, while other protesters line the sidewalk outside.
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast spring has sprung. What should you do in your garden? We've got answers. But first, for close to a month now activists have occupied the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington hoping to prevent the staff of opposition leader Juan Guaido from taking up diplomatic posts while President Nicolas Maduro remains in office.
KOJO NNAMDIOn Monday, police officers posted an eviction notice that has yet to be enforced. So as the stalemate between protestors occupying the embassy and those protesting the occupation drags on, we ask how will this all play out. And who has jurisdiction over Washington's embassies anyway? Joining me in studio is Marissa Lang. She's a local reporter for The Washington Post. She's been covering the protest at the Venezuelan Embassy. Marissa, thank you for joining us.
MARISSA LANGThank you for having me.
NNAMDIYou've been reporting for a month now on the standoff unfolding at the embassy. Law enforcement officers posted an eviction notice Monday telling activists hold up inside the embassy they would need to vacate the premises. What exactly is happening there now and what's unfolded in the last several days?
LANGThere's a stalemate right now. Both sides are kind of in wait and see mode to see what federal officials and police officers are going to do. As you mentioned, there have been activists living inside the embassy for a bit more than a month since April 10th. And there are only about four left. At its peak there were about 50 or so people in there. Now there are about four people left inside. And there's a lot of police presence. They've essentially blocked off 30th Street Northwest in Georgetown where the embassy is. And they have moved everyone to the opposite side of the street.
LANGSo it's hard to get even close to the building. They've cleared out all of the opposition protestors from that side of the street. And everyone is kind of just waiting to see what will happen and if they're going to force these folks out or if they'll come out by themselves.
NNAMDIFor listeners who may not have been following these complicated political backstory closely. Very briefly why did these activists come to occupy the Venezuelan Embassy?
LANGThe occupiers inside are a part of a bunch of left wing groups primarily Americans, who believe that U.S. intervention in Venezuela would be a very bad idea. They also believe that Nicolas Maduro is the rightful elected president of the Venezuelan country. So these activists early in April were in talks with the Venezuelan government, the Maduro government about coming into the embassy and helping them to actually physically secure the building and prevent opposition forces, Juan Guaido's people from entering perhaps with the assistance of United States officials.
LANGSo they have been in there they saw with the invitation and expressed permission of the Maduro government. And they haven't left since. There's been a presence there 24-7 since April 10th. Sometime in that time there's a bunch of Venezuelans and Venezuelan Americans, who learned that they were in there. They were hosting events. They were having speakers. They were livestreaming them. So these other folks found out and they were upset that these groups had essentially come into the Venezuelan Embassy and were using it to further their message, which many of them disagree with.
LANGA lot of these Venezuelans and Venezuelan Americans do not believe that Nicolas Maduro is the rightful president of the country. And they also are upset that frankly there are no Venezuelan nationals still inside the Venezuelan Embassy. As you can imagine there are documents in there sensitive personal information, people's passport information. So a large number of Venezuelan expats and Venezuelan Americans converged on the embassy to show their discontent and to protest and to eventually block the entrances from letting more demonstrators inside.
NNAMDIWhat do we know about conditions inside the embassy right now?
LANGThey're not great. They have the power shutoff last week. So Pepco cut the power. We do know that they've had dwindling supplies. Food, water has been difficult to get into them. As I mentioned, there were quite a number of demonstrators blocking entrances and exits. There were a lot of standoffs over trying to get food into the building. So they have not been able to do that for quite some days. And I heard over the weekend that the water was out. Though, D.C. Water says they did not shut the water off. So it's unclear if there's a plumbing issue or something, but there seems to be minimal water. No electricity and a dwindling supply of food.
NNAMDIWhat have you been able to observe about the interaction between the protestors inside and the protestors outside? Has it all been peaceful?
LANGThere have been some clashes. It's interesting. There are protestors that are affiliated with Code Pink, the answer coalition and popular resistance, the groups you just mentioned both inside and outside the embassy. Those who could not return inside the embassy have gathered outside and have been, you know, protesting and supporting their colleagues, who are still inside the building. And then you have the other group like I said primarily Venezuelan, Venezuelan Americans, who are standing in opposition to that.
LANGThey have had physical confrontations particularly when there have been attempts to bring food into the embassy or for other people to reenter. The Venezuelan group has, you know, created human chains around the building to stop people from accessing doors. At one point the folks inside were trying to get food in by tying a bag to a rope and throwing it over the police line to their supporters. And, you know, there was some grappling over the food and the bag. And police officers had to arrest I think 10 or more people over the last month.
NNAMDIJoining us now by phone is Medea Benjamin. Medea Benjamin is a co-founder of Code Pink. And she can tell us exactly why Code Pink and other groups are occupying the embassy. Medea Benjamin, thank you for joining us.
MEDEA BENJAMINHey, thanks for having me on, Kojo.
NNAMDIWhy did your organization become involved here, Code Pink?
BENJAMINWe saw how the Venezuelan opposition had taken over the buildings belonging to the military attaché in Washington D.C. And also the consulate in New York City and they announced they were going to take over the embassy. We know that this a very dangerous move in violation of the Vienna Conventions. Article 45 says that even with the rupture of relations the hosting country is responsible for maintaining the integrity of the diplomatic presence.
BENJAMINAnd if the U.S. gave the embassy over to Guaido, one he couldn't do any diplomatic activities like issuing passports or visa. Two, it would create a real problem for the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, which Maduro might very well then say, "Okay. We're going to take that over." And that could lead to a U.S. declaring it an act of war, a U.S. intervention. And the third thing is this kind of rupture of a very important international agreement would be a dangerous precedent for U.S. Embassies all over the world. So those are the reasons.
NNAMDIWhat do you say to Venezuelans and Venezuelan Americans who say, but this is not your embassy, you should not be in there?
BENJAMINWell, it is the embassy that belongs to the government in power and that is the government that's recognized at the United Nations, which is the government of Maduro. We are calling for -- what the Venezuelan government is calling for, which is a protecting power agreement that has been done many times in history where a third country comes in and takes over the embassies, both the one here in D.C. as well as the U.S. one in Caracas. It's often done by Switzerland, by Sweden. These negotiations are actually happening between Venezuela and the U.S. And we're just trying to give it time for that to be sealed.
NNAMDIMedea, how long will activists remain in the Venezuelan Embassy. You say you're trying to give it time for that to be sealed. How long do you think this will take?
BENJAMINWe are prepared to stay and the people inside they're really now with very little food, very little water, and no electricity are prepared to continue to stay as long as they can until that agreement is reached. We don't know how long that will take and we don't know if the U.S. will violate that and illegally go and force them out. But we're hoping there's a diplomatic solution that could lead to the U.S. and Venezuela talking about other issues as well.
NNAMDIMedea Benjamin is a Co-Founder of Code Pink. Medea Benjamin, thank you for joining us.
BENJAMINThanks for having me on. Bye-bye.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Helen, a member of Code Pink, "Jesse Jackson and a group of faith leaders will be at the Venezuelan Embassy this afternoon to support the embassy protection collective, who remain inside the embassy holding it for the democratically elected government of Venezuela. Marissa, who owns the Venezuelan Embassy?
LANGIt's a good question. The country of Venezuela owns the Venezuelan Embassy. The problem right now is there is some debate internationally about, who the rightful leader of that country is. The United States has recognized Juan Guaido, the opposition leader, who is the leader of the National Assembly in Venezuela as the president of that country. And so the U.S. as far as the United States government is concerned, Juan Guaido and his ambassador, Carlos Vecchio, are in charge of the Venezuelan Embassy.
LANGAs Medea Benjamin just mentioned there are other organizations other countries, who do not recognize Juan Guaido as the correct leader of that country. And so they believe that Nicolas Maduro and his people still have claim and still have ownership over that building.
NNAMDIEmbassies are independent entities. They're actually foreign soil right here in our nation's capital.
NNAMDIWhat does that mean for local officials and police? Do they have any jurisdiction here?
LANGNot really. And it's very interesting to watch police interact outside the building. Metro Police, D.C. Police has been out there supporting federal officers. But they don't really go anywhere near going inside of the building. Federal officers as well have to be very careful about going in or, you know, penetrating something that you mentioned is foreign soil. So on Monday night when they did cut some bolts off the door and they entered the foyer to talk to some of these activists, they did so under the supervision and it seemed at the direction of Carlos Vecchio's appointees and diplomats, who are there representing Juan Guaido's government.
NNAMDIWho gave Pepco the orders to cut the power?
LANGPepco hasn't officially commented on that, but Code Pink told me that they were told by Pepco that it was Carlos Vecchio, the ambassador, who is appointed by Guaido who asked Pepco to cut the power.
NNAMDIAnd we know as we said earlier there are Venezuelan American and Venezuelan protestors outside of the embassy. Here's a listen to what they sound like sometimes.
NNAMDIMarissa, what are they signing?
LANGThey're singing the Venezuelan national anthem. It's "Gloria al bravo pueblo," which translates to "Glory to the brave people."
NNAMDICarlos La Cruz, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CARLOS LA CRUZThank you for taking our call. I just first want to comment that Ms. Benjamin and her organization. There are really not care about Venezuelan people. They are receiving money from the Nicolas Maduro government. They have received millions of dollars from the Nicolas Maduro government.
NNAMDIMarissa, are you aware of that that the Code Pink and the other organizations have received millions of dollars from the Maduro government?
LANGI haven't been able to confirm the number, but that is an accusation that a lot of the Venezuelans, who have been out there are saying. There are photographs of Ms. Benjamin and some of her colleagues with Nicolas Maduro and Hugo Chavez, his predecessor. So there definitely has been some communication and connections there.
NNAMDIGo ahead, Carlos.
CRUZWe have to question really her motives. You can't really be for peace and support the Nicolas Maduro government, who is starving his people, is killing its own people.
NNAMDIBut she points out that that's the government that is recognized by the United Nations.
CRUZBut in this case, the embassy is in Washington. It's recognized by the United States government. Juan Guaido is the president according to the Venezuelan Constitution and there should not be any questions about that.
CRUZIt's a bilateral relation between the United States and Venezuela. And they recognize Juan Guaido as the ambassador -- I'm sorry, as the president -- interim president according to the Venezuelan Constitution. So --
NNAMDIWhat we have here is clearly a stalemate. But we do we have Dilianna Bustillos on the phone. Dilianna, we don't have a great deal of time left. But I'm assuming that Carlos La Cruz speaks for you so to speak.
DILIANNA BUSTILLOSWell, I -- hi. This is Dilianna. I'm a Venezuelan American that's been at the embassy for the past 14 days peacefully protesting with my community. And I would just like to debunk a couple of things that Ms. Benjamin said on the phone right now. She quotes the Vienna Convention and several articles in that treaty to state her claim and her friends claim -- her associates claim to our embassy. What she failed to mention is that that is based on states agreeing to a representation and it's between states and not individuals.
DILIANNA BUSTILLOSCode Pink and affiliates are not a state. Therefore they do not have a rightful claim to be in our embassy. They are trespassing and they are violating that exact treaty that she is quoting. So she's misusing and misrepresenting the Vienna Convention.
NNAMDIFinal question. Who do you think does have a rightful claim to be in the embassy?
BUSTILLOSThe Venezuelan people, first and foremost, the Venezuelan people and the government that represents the Venezuelan people is Juan Guaido and his diplomatic mission represented by Carlos Vecchio here in the U.S.
NNAMDIThat clearly is a matter of opinion. And the United States sides with her in its opinion. So how will this, you think, likely play out, Marissa?
LANGIt's really hard to say. Right now I think there's, you know, interest on both sides to see what happens with this building. Will the protestors inside leave of their own accord? We heard Medea Benjamin say that they are prepared to stay. And the Venezuelan side, Dilianna Bustillos among them has said that they are going to wait it out as well. And they're going to be out there watching and protesting until they get out of the building.
NNAMDIJust quickly, here's Tony in Virginia who wants to talk about a different kind of situation that's somehow similar. Tony, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TONYThanks, Kojo. From David Brinkley's book "Washington in War Time" he recounts an episode that is very similar to what we have going on with the French Embassy. When France fell to the Germans and was replaced by a Vechy State, the French ambassador from the previous incarnation of France refused his Vechy successor into the French Embassy and that was sort of a one person standoff kind of like what we have today.
NNAMDIHow did it end?
TONYWe ended up leaving him in there. We didn't necessarily want to recognize the Vechy French either as an enemy nation or a sort of enemy nation. And we just left that guy in there. And another situation which is kind of in limbo is ever since 1979 the Iranian Embassy, which is right next to South Africa's Embassy that has been empty after the hostage crisis in Tehran. And I've never been able to confirm it, but I have heard that the Turkish Embassy is sort of looking after it, although they don't have any people in there.
NNAMDIThat is probably correct.
TONYAnd so that's an embassy situation that is unresolved.
NNAMDIThat is probably correct, because there are not diplomatic relations between the two countries. Marissa, thank you so much for joining us.
LANGThank you for having me.
NNAMDIMarissa Lang is a local reporter for The Washington Post. She's been covering the protests at the embassy. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, spring has sprung. What should you be doing in your garden? We've got answers. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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