Police forcibly remove activists living at Venezuelan Embassy in Washington
By MARISSA J. LANG | The Washington Post | Published: May 16, 2019
Federal law enforcement officers entered the embassy Thursday morning at the behest of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido to remove and arrest the final four demonstrators who remained inside, ending a weekslong standoff between protesters on opposite sides of the South American country's ongoing political crisis.
The Venezuelan Embassy in Washington's upscale Georgetown neighborhood has for weeks been the site of dueling protests between backers of embattled President Nicolas Maduro and supporters of Guaido, who has been recognized by the United States and about 50 other nations as the country's interim president.
Carlos Vecchio, the Guaido-appointed ambassador who has been recognized by the U.S. government, tweeted that his diplomatic mission would take control of the embassy Thursday evening.
"The usurpation has ended," Vecchio said in a statement issued in Spanish. "It has taken time and effort, but we have complied with the Venezuelan people. Infinite thanks to the Venezuelan diaspora for their sacrifice. Next liberation: Venezuela."
Earlier this week, Vecchio had requested U.S. assistance in removing the activists living inside the embassy and gave federal law enforcement officers permission to enter the building, a representative for the State Department said.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael Harvey later issued a warrant for the demonstrators' arrests.
But Carlos Ron, deputy foreign minister for the Maduro government, tweeted Thursday that U.S. officials entering the building "is an unlawful breach of the Vienna Convention," an international treaty that created a legal framework for diplomacy among countries.
Four individuals, "including members of a group called Code Pink, individuals calling themselves the Embassy Protection Collective, and members of a group called the Popular Resistance," were arrested for interfering with the State Department's protective functions, the State Department said.
Code Pink organizers identified the four arrested demonstrators as Kevin Zeese, Margaret Flowers, Adrienne Pine and David Paul.
They are scheduled to appear in federal court Friday afternoon.
The four had been among the occupation's most stalwart participants, organizers said. They had joined in the demonstration in early April and refused to leave the embassy even after an eviction notice was posted to the embassy door on Monday.
At its peak, the Code Pink-led occupation of the building brought as many as 50 people into the building.
"We are prepared to stay for as long as it takes," Zeese said in late April.
Flowers added: "They'll have to carry me out."
Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, co-founder of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, which has been providing legal assistance to the Code Pink activists, said "federal law enforcement officials broke into the embassy" on Thursday.
"Instead of leaving the government of Venezuela up to the people of Venezuela, you now have the U.S. government deciding for the people of Venezuela who their leadership will be, and handing over an embassy compound to their designated representative," Verheyden-Hilliard said after Thursday's arrests.
Federal law enforcement officers, including several in fatigues wearing tactical gear, entered the building about 9 a.m.
Police entered the embassy through a back door and after more than an hour brought the activists out into a carport hidden from the view of protesters and media who eventually gathered on 29th Street NW.
Dustin Sternbeck, the chief spokesman for District of Columbia police, said the department will be asking the federal government to reimburse costs for helping federal authorities at the embassy. That includes overtime and other expenses. Sternbeck said he did not yet have an estimate on the costs.
For weeks, Guaido supporters have congregated outside the embassy to demand that demonstrators living there vacate the building. None of the occupiers was Venezuelan, according to organizers — a fact that riled members of the Venezuelan community in Washington.
"This is first and foremost a strong rejection of Nicolas Maduro, and to see a group of Americans, an NGO, support him so strongly just got a visceral reaction from us," said pro-Guaido demonstrator Dilianna Bustillos. "We wanted to get out here and say what they were saying out the embassy window, our embassy's window, did not represent the wishes of the Venezuelan people."
The ongoing and at times explosive confrontation between activists became a proxy struggle for control over the South American country's diplomatic mission.
Protests inside and outside the embassy continued nonstop for nearly three weeks. But leftist demonstrators from groups, including Code Pink, began living inside long before counterdemonstrators began to protest outside.
The four of demonstrators arrested Thursday had been living in the building since about April 10, Code Pink national co-director Ariel Gold said. The group had been invited by Maduro government officials to stay in the building and "protect it" from attempts to enter by U.S. forces or Guaido-appointees, Gold has said.
Since April 30, anti-Maduro protesters have converged on the building en masse to protest Code Pink's presence inside.
They set up camp with tents, canopies and food stations so they, too, could be at the embassy for 24 hours a day. Members of the group patrolled the building's entrances and exits, at times physically blocking Code Pink supporters' efforts to enter the building or deliver supplies like food and water to demonstrators inside.
Each side has accused the other of violence and harassment. Police have arrested at least 10 people since May 1, many of whom were charged in connection with "throwing missiles" — in many cases, a reference to food items launched past police barricades and the raised hands of Guaido supporters.
Last week, protest organizers said a utility shut off electricity to the building at the direction of Guaido-appointed diplomats recognized by the U.S. government as the rightful emissaries of Venezuela. On Monday, officials posted a notice demanding that the occupiers vacate the embassy.
On Tuesday, police issued a warning to the activists via megaphone, saying those inside must leave "immediately" and that "any person who refuses ... will be trespassing in violation of federal and District of Columbia laws."