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Liberal activists occupy Venezuelan embassy in Washington to oppose Trump policy  3 Months ago

Source:   USA Today  

WASHINGTON – Liberal activists are bracing for a showdown with the Trump administration Thursday at an unusual location: Venezuela's embassy, a stately four-story building in one of Washington's most exclusive neighborhoods. 

That building was vacated earlier this year after President Donald Trump denounced Venezuela's president Nicolas Maduro as illegitimate and recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country's true leader. Maduro quickly blasted the move and recalled most of his diplomatic staff from the U.S., leaving Venezuela's embassy nearly empty.

Now, however, the diplomatic building is filled with left-wing protesters vehemently opposed to the Trump administration's policy. They say the Trump administration is trying to orchestrate a coup in the oil-rich South American nation. 

“This is part of the U.S. regime change playbook," said Margaret Flowers, co-director of PopularResistance.org, a peace and justice group.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others Trump administration officials have labeled Maduro a ruthless dictator. Under Maduro's rule, Venezuela has suffered from a severe economic crisis, with rampant inflation and shortages of food and medicine. Opposition leaders in Venezuela said his re-election last May was rife with irregularities; some opposition candidates were barred from even running.

The U.S. is now working with a large coalition of other countries opposed to Maduro's continued grip on power, coordinating their support for Gauido's bid to replace him.

The goal is "to restore human rights and democracy in Venezuela," Pompeo said during an April 15 speech in Texas. "I know that we will ultimately be successful and that Mr. Maduro will leave that country." 

But in Washington, the anti-war activists have no plans to leave the Venezuelan embassy. 

Flowers and about a dozen others have taken over the building – camping out "24/7" to prevent the U.S. from installing Guaido's diplomats in the building. They've draped banners and signs inside and outside, trying to call attention to what they say is an imperialist U.S. policy. And they're sleeping on couches at night, making sure to clean up after themselves when they use the kitchens and showers.

"My worry is it’s one more step toward a civil war in Venezuela," said Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Code Pink, a women-led anti-war organization.

She fears that if the U.S. gives the keys of Venezuela's embassy to Gauido's representatives in Washington, Maduro will try to take over the American embassy in Caracas.  

"From what I know of my government, that would be considered an act of war and things could really escalate," Benjamin said. 

The State Department's press office referred questions about the status of the embassy to Carlos Vecchio, who Guaido names as his ambassador to the United States. Vecchio has been operating out of temporary offices in Washington as Maduro and Guaido face off in Venezuela. 

The State Department issued an April 24 deadline for all Maduro-loyal staff to leave the embassy. But one of Maduro's representatives – Benjamin would not say who – turned the keys over to the American protesters. 

She expects U.S. Secret Service and trkhe local Washington police to arrive soon with orders to evict them. It's not clear when that will happen, but Flowers and others say they have no intention of leaving. 

Benjamin predicted that as many as a dozen activists are willing to be arrested if there is a showdown.

Kevin Zeese, also a co-founder of PopularResistance.org, said installing Guaido's emissaries in the embassy would have no practical effect. But the U.S. wants them in control of the building as a symbolic boost to Guaido, who he blasts as a "U.S. pawn." 

Zeese noted that Guaido's appointed diplomats would not have the authority to issue visas or passports, because they don't control the government in Caracas.

"Anything they do will be illegitimate," he said. "It’s for show and momentum ... to make this fake government look real.”

 

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