Medea Benjamin is co-director of Code Pink and a member of the Embassy Protection Collective.
Memories from Iraq keep running over and over in my mind as I and a group of peace activists continue to struggle to remain in the Embassy of Venezuela here in Washington, determined to prevent another reckless war.
My colleague Jodie Evans and I were in Baghdad in February 2003, when the feared Saddam Hussein was still in power. Some of our Iraqi friends hated him so much that they prayed for an U.S. invasion. A year later, when chaos reigned and so many of their loved ones had died, they cursed the American invaders and rued the day they had welcomed them.
Fast-forward 16 years. Many Venezuelans are anxious to get rid of Nicolás Maduro. Disheartened by the failure of opposition leader Juan Guaidó to spark an uprising, some are looking at U.S. intervention as the answer. Trump’s war hawks, including national security adviser John Bolton, U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams and Vice President Pence, seem only too eager to oblige. I cringe at the thought of my government, once again, invading another country and turning a bad situation into a catastrophic one. U.S. intervention in Venezuela could lead to a civil war that would plague Venezuela for decades and affect the entire region.
Many scenarios could ignite a war with Venezuela, including a fight over embassies. The United States and Venezuela broke diplomatic ties on Jan. 23, when Guaidó declared himself interim president and the Trump administration immediately recognized him. Diplomats in both capitals vacated their embassies, leaving skeletal staff but keeping the buildings intact. Then on March 18, Guaidó’s representatives in the United States escalated the tensions by appropriating Venezuela’s military attaché building in Washington and the consulate in New York City, while announcing plans to take over the D.C. embassy.
A takeover would be symbolic, since Guaidó’s appointees cannot fulfill diplomatic or consular activities without holding power in Venezuela, but it would still be illegal. According to Article 22 of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, diplomatic premises are inviolable and the receiving state must protect the premises against any "intrusion or damage and … prevent any disturbance of the peace of the mission or impairment of its dignity."
It would also be provocative because the Maduro government would likely reciprocate by taking over the U.S. Embassy in Caracas. This could be just the pretext that this administration is looking for to begin military aggression.
Determined to stop this nightmare, a group of peace activists formed the Embassy Protection Collective. We have various opinions about the Maduro government —some pro, some neutral, some skeptical — but we are all determined to stop U.S. intervention. With the permission of the Venezuelan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, on April 10 we moved into the four-story embassy in the Georgetown neighborhood. For weeks we went in and out of the building freely, staying overnight on sofas and floors to maintain our presence. Except for banners we posted outside saying things such as “No Coup, Peace With Venezuela” and “No War for Oil,” our vigil was low-key and barely noticed by the public.
All this changed on April 30, when a group of Guaidó supporters — almost coinciding with his call for an uprising inside Venezuela — descended on the embassy, determined to oust us and seize the building. They came banging pots and pans, blaring piercing sirens, horns and megaphones. They have used lasers to flash into our eyes at night while banging menacingly on the doors with sledgehammers. They plastered their own signs all over the building.
Most concerning, they have surrounded the embassy with tents and canopies to block every entrance, refusing to allow food or medicine to the activists inside, with the objective of starving us out. When we tried to devise ways to get food (such as a pulley to the second-floor window), they attacked us, screaming, “No food, no water, get out of our embassy.”
Shockingly, this atmosphere of hate and intimidation and the threat against diplomatic property belonging to the Maduro government are all taking place under the watchful eyes of dozens of agents from the Secret Service, the agency tasked with guarding embassies. If you call the Secret Service to complain, officers will read you a statement saying that no individuals, medicine or food have been prevented from entering the building, but this is not true. Even packages sent through the U.S. Postal Service are not allowed in. It is appalling that the Secret Service is allowing mob rule to take over in the heart of Washington.
Our people inside, who are subsisting without sufficient supplies and sleeping at night with a terrible sense of insecurity, are determined to hold on until a diplomatic agreement is reached. Indeed, if the two countries can come to an agreement about their embassies, that could be the beginning of talks that might roll back the Trump administration’s reckless policy of gross interference in Venezuela’s internal affairs.
Once an agreement about the embassies is reached, our group will happily leave the premises, satisfied because we can go back to our lives but also because Trump’s war hawks will have one less excuse to drag our nation into another war.