The sun had just dipped below the horizon Wednesday evening when the lights flicked off inside the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington.
With no electricity, activists who have been living inside the building are adjusting to the latest obstacle in their month-long occupation of the embassy.
Getting food inside has been one of the biggest challenges for the past 10 days, with anti-Maduro protesters and Secret Service barricades blocking most of the doors. Then Thursday, activists announced they would be cutting back on their primary source of communication with the outside world: social media. With no power to charge their devices, there will be less tweeting and fewer video streams.
Organizers with Code Pink, a left-wing organization known for its theatrical and provocative protests, said the utility bills had been paid in full by the Maduro-led Venezuelan government.
But Pepco, the building’s electricity provider, told activists that the U.S.-backed opposition government had ordered the power be shut off, Code Pink co-founder Medea Benjamin said.
“The owner of the building told them to turn off the electricity and then we were told that they say the owner of the building is Carlos Vecchio,” Benjamin said, referring to the Guaidó-appointed U.S. ambassador. “It is the government of Maduro that has been paying all the bills all along for this building, including the Pepco bill, which is up to date.”
Medea Benjamin said Pepco was asked to turn off power by the owner of the building, who the company apparently identified to CodePink as Guaidó’s opposition government (which has been recognized by the US). She said this is wrong, as Maduro is still president. #VenezuelaEmbassy pic.twitter.com/SrdfFOWv3P— Marissa J. Lang (@Marissa_Jae) May 9, 2019
Pepco declined to comment on why the electricity was turned off, saying it doesn’t comment on individual properties or customers.
Members of Code Pink and other far-left groups, including Answer Coalition, Popular Resistance and Black Alliance for Peace, have been inside the embassy since April 10 at the invitation of Maduro government officials. About two weeks into Code Pink’s residency, Venezuelan and Venezuelan American protesters began to gather outside. They have not left since.
“In response to this illegal occupation, members . . . of the Venezuelan community have gathered in the hundreds over the past couple of days to protest the illegal trespassing of these groups,” protester Dilianna Bustillos said. “We’ve been organizing 24-hour vigils, 24/7, to prevent further trespassers from entering our building.”
The embassy, a four-story brick building on a quiet side street near the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal in the posh Georgetown neighborhood, has become the site of a proxy power struggle that mirrors the international battle over the future of Venezuela.
Ten protesters have been arrested over the past week, according to the Secret Service. Most have been charged with simple assault or throwing “missiles” — in many cases, a reference to food that activists have been trying to launch past police barricades and the raised hands of pro-Guaidó demonstrators.
Each side has accused the other of violence.
Benjamin said Thursday that she has been pushed, struck and injured by “lasers being pointed into my eyes,” requiring medical treatment. As she spoke, several pro-Guaidó protesters blared air horns and bullhorn sirens.
“We are absolutely peaceful protesters,” she said. “The only time that there have been scuffles is when we are attacked and then when we try to bring in food into the embassy.”
The day before, pro-Guaidó protesters held a news conference in a courtyard at the embassy’s rear, where they have set up half a dozen tents for demonstrators to spend the night outside. As organizers spoke, Code Pink demonstrators leaned out second-story windows and taunted demonstrators through a megaphone.
Protesters said Code Pink supporters pushed a pregnant woman participating in a human chain around the embassy — to keep deliveries of food from reaching its doors — and attacked a 58-year-old demonstrator in a confrontation.
The demonstrator, Naylet Pacheco, of Suffolk, Va., said she was pushed against a wall and kicked by several men, then spent hours at a hospital being treated. Police arrested a man late Wednesday who Pacheco said she recognized from the attack.
“I screamed to the police, ‘Help me! They want to kill me!’ ” Pacheco said in Spanish. “It was horrible.”
The Secret Service declined to identify demonstrators who had been arrested.
“This was an attack without warning, without provocation,” said Robert Nasser, a member of the Venezuelan group Lucha Democratica. “We are peaceful. We are nonviolent.”
Code Pink and its supporters say they are there to “protect the embassy” from attempts to enter by any group that has not been sanctioned by the Maduro government, which includes Guaidó officials and U.S. agencies. They have padlocked the front entrance and secured other doors with chains.
Meanwhile, Guaidó supporters outside have said they were moved to sit in a vigil after learning no Venezuelan nationals were left inside. The last group of Maduro-appointed diplomats left the embassy last month when their visas expired.
“As you know, all of [the Venezuelan citizens’] information is within the walls of that embassy, and we don’t trust the occupants to be the correct stewards and to be using our information correctly,” Bustillos said.
Several pro-Guaidó demonstrators said they don’t care if the embassy sits empty until Venezuela can sort out which government has authority — they just want Code Pink out.
Watching the embassy go dark Wednesday buoyed their hopes that the group might choose to leave sooner rather than later. But Benjamin said demonstrators were “committed” to staying — with or without electricity.
“They’re saying, ‘No matter what happens, you can cut off the electricity, you can cut off the water, we’ll still stay here,’ ” said Benjamin, who has been unable to reenter the embassy after leaving more than a week ago. “Even if they have to be without eating.”
Activists initially said in a statement Thursday that water had been cut off but later said electricity was the only utility that had been stopped. A D.C. Water spokesman said the property’s water was never shut off.
Just after 8 p.m. Wednesday, police cordoned off 30th Street NW to allow several neon-shirted men down a manhole in the middle of the street. Code Pink said it showed police are taking sides, though a spokeswoman for the Secret Service said the agency is committed to protecting both sides’ right to protest.
Pro-Guaidó protesters said they’re prepared to stay as long as Code Pink does.
On Thursday, several celebrated the irony of a blackout at the Venezuelan Embassy — a circumstance that has become a common occurrence in the South American country.
“They’re getting a little taste of what Venezuela has been experiencing,” demonstrator Daniela Bustillos said. “It’s a small victory for us. But we will not be satisfied until they leave once and for all.”