Pro-Maduro protesters booted from Venezuelan embassy in D.C., ending ‘symbolic insult’

Rev. Jesse Jackson delivers food outside Venezuelan Embassy

Rev. Jesse Jackson argues with a pro-Juan Guaido protester as he delivers food outside Venezuelan Embassy in Washington on May 15. On May 16 the four remaining protesters inside the embassy were removed and arrested by the State Department.
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Rev. Jesse Jackson argues with a pro-Juan Guaido protester as he delivers food outside Venezuelan Embassy in Washington on May 15. On May 16 the four remaining protesters inside the embassy were removed and arrested by the State Department.

The scene outside a five-story brick building in one of Washington’s richest neighborhoods has been either a crucial proxy fight for Venezuela’s freedom or a low-grade public disturbance punctuated by occasional outbursts of dueling megaphones and flying bread.

It depends on whom you ask.

A group of American protesters sympathetic to Nicolás Maduro have holed up in the embassy for the past month, after the U.S. recognized Juan Guaidó as the legitimate leader of Venezuela and accepted his choice of ambassador. As Maduro’s diplomatic staff in Washington was leaving the country, they handed the protesters the keys to the embassy. Three weeks ago, Guaidó’s diplomats showed up demanding entry, and pro-Guaidó Venezuelans stationed themselves on the street outside the embassy.

At the State Department’s direction, the power and water were shut off on Monday in an effort to force the four remaining protesters — who have identified themselves with the name Code Pink — out of the building. By Thursday, police officers under the State Department’s control entered the building and arrested the holdouts.

Pro-Guaidó protesters cheered their removal a day after the decision to cut off utilities drew a former presidential candidate and a former vice-presidential candidate to the embassy, the final spectacle in weeks of shouting, three arrests after protesters attempted to throw bread into the embassy and hundreds of shaky cellphone videos.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, a former CNN host and presidential candidate in 1984 and 1988, arrived with an entourage in a black SUV, hours after meeting basketball phenom Zion Williamson at the NBA draft lottery at a swanky Chicago hotel. Ajamu Baraka, Green Party vice presidential candidate in 2016, grabbed a pro-Guaidó protester and called him a “reactionary pig.”

Jackson said that cutting off electricity and water to those in the embassy was an “inhumanity.”

Miami Rep. Donna Shalala, a part-time resident herself of Georgetown, where the embassy is located, said she hasn’t noticed the dozens of protesters in her neighborhood and laughed at Jackson’s appearance.

“Is he running for president?” Shalala said. “When Jesse Jackson pops up in the middle of an election year, you never know.”

As Jackson walked up to the embassy with bags of meat, cheese and water, pro-Guaidó protester Mateo Burwick, who left Venezuela two years ago in fear of the Maduro government, tried to stop him.

“They just didn’t want to listen to me. It just doesn’t matter for them,” said Burwick, who camped outside the embassy for 23 days. “So I grabbed one bag.”

A throng of protesters and TV cameras converged around Burwick. For almost five minutes, protesters shouted in his ears and pried at his fingers, trying to get him to let go of the bag. Protesters inside the embassy appeared panicked as the tug-of-war continued.

Finally, Burwick relented, and Jackson placed the pink bags into the duffel bag that was then hoisted back into the embassy.

Maduro-run media outlets declared Jackson a hero.

The standoff at the Venezuelan embassy, in which American citizens occupied foreign territory with the blessing of a leader who is not recognized as the embassy’s legitimate owner, appears to have no precedent in U.S. history.

Pro-Maduro diplomats have remained at embassies in other countries like Canada that also recognize Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, leaving Guaidó’s representatives to conduct diplomacy on their own dime.

But Canada has approximately 30,000 Venezuelans. The United States has more than 400,000, concentrated in South Florida, and they’re not going to accept any trace of Maduro in the U.S.

“It’s a symbolic insult,” said Helena Poleo, a Democratic consultant and Venezuelan expat in Miami. “This is an embassy that’s supposed to be there to serve Venezuelans and these guys are using it basically for their entertainment. They think it’s cute and fun to hole themselves up and call themselves Code Pink. It’s an insult to the people that die every day in Venezuela. It’s an insult to political prisoners and their families in Venezuela.”

Guaidó said the removal of protesters in the embassy sets a precedent to remove Maduro representatives in embassies around the world.

“It starts the process of recovering our diplomatic headquarters in the world,” Guaidó said in a tweet. “Thanks to our diaspora for exercising sovereignty and recovering our embassy in Washington.”

The arrests in Washington are the latest example of Guaidó asserting power as the legitimate leader of Venezuela. The protesters in the embassy had argued they were protected under diplomatic-immunity laws under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations because Maduro’s diplomats gave them permission to enter.

The Vienna Convention allows embassies to be treated as foreign territory and host countries are not able to enter without consent. That’s what allowed WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to stay in Ecuador’s embassy in London for years and prevented the Turkish government from investigating the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at a Saudi Arabian consulate office in Istanbul.

But in those cases, there was no ambiguity about who controls Ecuador’s and Saudi Arabia’s governments. Venezuela is disputed, with Guaidó recognized as the country’s legitimate leader by the U.S. and about 50 other countries, mostly in Latin America and Europe, while Maduro is recognized as the legitimate leader by Russia, China, Cuba and others.

But kicking out pro-Maduro protesters carries a symbolic weight with Venezuelan Americans.

“It’s probably more cathartic for the people doing it than it is for an actual means of influencing policy here in Washington,” said Michael Dobson, a former senior sanctions policy advisor in the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. “Off the top of my head I can’t recall anything remotely similar.”

Guaidó’s U.S. ambassador, Carlos Vecchio, said his representatives took steps to ensure that the Vienna Convention was followed to remove protesters who were not Venezuelan citizens.

One of the protesters removed from the embassy Thursday was Kevin Zeese, a 63-year-old Baltimore native who spent the past few days soaking uncooked pasta in water until it softened enough to eat and cooking tortillas on the roof of the building in a solar cooker.

Zeese said he’s been to Venezuela twice in the past year and that the U.S. would violate international law if they tried to remove him and the others from the building.

“He’s the legitimate president,” Zeese said of Maduro. “We are here with the permission of the Venezuelan government. We’re here in solidarity with the Venezuelan people.”

Maduro’s government said the arrests violated international law.

“We denounce these arrests, as the people inside were there with our permission, and we consider it a violation of the Vienna Conventions,” Maduro deputy foreign minister Carlos Ron said in a statement. “We do not authorize any of the coup leaders to enter our embassy in Washington D.C.”

The Vienna Convention states that “the agents of the receiving State may not enter [embassies], except with the consent of the head of the mission.”

But the U.S. considers Vecchio to be the head of the mission, and Vecchio asked for the protesters to be removed last week.

“The invaders are out of the embassy. The Usurpation has ended,” Vecchio said in a statement. “Infinitely grateful to the Venezuelan diaspora for their sacrifice.

“Next liberation: Venezuela.”