Activists on both sides of the showdown between supporters of President Nicolás Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaidó say their influence among diplomats and American lawmakers has increased markedly since their high-profile clash. Members of the Venezuelan diaspora established an organization to carry on the activism started in the street, and Code Pink organizers say demonstrators are joining their cause, inspired by what they saw.
Even the building, now in the hands of Guaidó’s handpicked ambassador, Carlos Vecchio, was transformed. Vecchio said Friday that the structure suffered “a lot” of physical damage during the demonstrations.
The building also became a symbol — and a trophy — in the international tug of war over Venezuela’s political future.
“Obviously, controlling the embassy in Washington is not the same thing as controlling the streets of Caracas,” said Allen S. Weiner, director of Stanford Law School’s program on international and comparative law. “But it’s symbolically important.”
Code Pink and its supporters moved quietly into the building in early April. At the time, few seemed to notice, or care, said co-founder Medea Benjamin, except the handful of Maduro-appointed diplomats working inside.
By day, demonstrators went about their routines under the watchful gaze of portraits of South American revolutionary Simón Bolívar. By night, they hosted events and guest speakers on a range of international topics.
After Maduro’s diplomats left — the State Department declined to renew their visas — Code Pink members remained in the building. That’s when a handful of Venezuelan nationals and Venezuelan Americans took notice.
The first day members of the diaspora called for a counterprotest, organizers said, it was messy, reactionary and raw. The group hadn’t planned to camp out around the clock. In fact, the pro-Guaidó demonstrators hadn’t really planned anything.
“I have been protesting for years, and it used to be that someone would organize one protest and then we wouldn’t hear anything from each other for months,” said Dilianna Bustillos, who helped organize the pro-Guaidó demonstrations at the embassy. “When we were suddenly there for two weeks, we started to really see what strengths we all had as individuals and as a group, and how we could leverage that to help further this cause.”
Outside the embassy, about 20 people in a newly formed group dubbed “Ask a Venezuelan” began to organize demonstrations, correspond with Vecchio’s staff and respond to what organizers described as misinformation online.
“The situation in Venezuela is extremely complex,” Bustillos said. “It is extremely, extremely nuanced. That’s what kind of spurred us into coming together, so we want to take all of these disparate resources and ideas and figure out how we can make it relatively easy for people who are interested in what’s happening to understand what’s happening.”
Inside the building, Code Pink and its allies said they were doing the same.
“We think [national security adviser] John Bolton has misled Donald Trump and the country on the nature of the people of Venezuela,” said Kevin Zeese, one of four demonstrators arrested and removed from the embassy on May 16. “A lot of our responsibility is to correct the misinformation.”
By the time officers hauled the four activists out of the building, the activists had expected their days inside were coming to a close.
Days earlier, federal officials posted an eviction notice to the embassy door. Officers read the instructions over a loudspeaker each night, telling demonstrators inside they were ordered to leave “immediately.”
The activists — Margaret Flowers, 56; Adrienne Pine, 48; David Paul, 69; and Zeese, 63 — were the last demonstrators of about 50 who had spent nights at the embassy since early April.
Benjamin said that by staging the demonstration, activists were able to “engage in the broader issue” and attract the attention of lawmakers and the news media.
“We knew it was a big deal when we started sleeping in this embassy, but I don’t think we understood all the implications that have now come into play,” she said. “Usually, we’re standing in front of the White House, yelling and screaming, and nobody pays attention to us. But this is something real. Something significant.”
Benjamin, who describes herself as “antiwar” and not pro-Maduro, has said the heightened media attention gave Code Pink and others a platform to raise issues like U.S. military intervention and the Vienna Convention.
Zeese, who dismissed claims that Maduro is a dictator, said he believes the U.S. approach to Venezuela will become an issue in the 2020 presidential campaign. Code Pink and other groups already have shifted their focus toward lobbying members of Congress and the United Nations.
“When you occupy a public space, you also occupy a part of the public dialogue,” Zeese said. “This was an amazing event — to have U.S. citizens occupy space in a foreign embassy.”
Carla Barqueiro, a professor at Goucher College in Maryland who specializes in international relations and Latin America, said the embassy occupiers’ decision to align themselves with Maduro may have hurt their cause and diluted their anti-intervention message.
“There are real problems with their optics on that front,” Barqueiro said. “It’s important to be discussing neo-imperialism and what the best course of action ought to be. The problem is they’re now connected with the Maduro government, and that’s probably a mistake.”
It’s unclear how the embassy showdown might influence American diplomatic relations with Venezuela and other nations, international law experts said, partly because what happened at the embassy was so unusual. American activist groups don’t usually walk into a foreign embassy and declare themselves its rightful protectors, Weiner said.
The United States, about 50 other nations and several international bodies, including the Organization of American States, recognize Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president. Maduro, who was victorious last year in elections widely considered flawed, is recognized by Russia, China, Cuba and the United Nations.
“Who gets to sit at the seat of Venezuela in the U.N. is going to be decided by the U.N. because it is the body that accredits representatives,” Weiner said. “The question of who gets to sit in the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington, D.C., is going to be decided by the United States government.”
According to the Vienna Convention, police and other local officials cannot enter an embassy unless invited by the ambassador. Code Pink and left-wing activists from groups including the Answer Coalition and Popular Resistance accuse the United States of breaching international law by entering the locked embassy to arrest the activists inside.
Their removal came at the request of Vecchio, Guaidó’s ambassador.
The demonstrators were charged with interfering with State Department diplomatic functions, a federal crime punishable by up to a year in prison.
“We felt we were the true embassy protectors — not the State Department,” Zeese said. “We will continue to protect the embassy by pushing for a protecting power agreement.”
Such an agreement, in which a third-party country assumes control, and protection, of an embassy, is common when a country has ceased diplomatic relations with another.
The trouble is, Weiner said, the United States has not cut diplomatic ties with Venezuela. It has merely shifted its recognition from Maduro to Guaidó as the country’s legitimate leader.
On Friday, Vecchio posted photos online of himself in the embassy, unfurling the Venezuelan flag from a second-story window. Inside, his colleagues were assessing damage they said had been done to the building during the standoff.
Vecchio raised a fist in the air as the flag flapped in the wind.
“Venezuela libre,” he said. Free Venezuela.