A protest sign stuck in the window of a four-story brick-front building in Georgetown faces the street: “This embassy belongs to the elected government of Venezuela.”
But exactly which government is that?
Nicolás Maduro and Juan Guaidó — the two men who are claiming the presidency back home in their troubled South American nation — are now engaged in a full-blown global power struggle to control Venezuela’s diplomatic posts. From Washington to Berlin, Vienna to Panama City, their competing bids for legitimacy have set up an international tug of war between rival diplomatic corps claiming to be the rightful possessors of Venezuela’s foreign embassies, consulates, accreditation and access.
As they vie for both influence and real estate, they are gathering allies and finding enemies.
Even in Washington — where the Trump administration has joined nearly 60 nations in backing Guaidó — Maduro still has friends. As the last of Maduro’s diplomats prepared in recent weeks to leave the stately Venezuelan Embassy, nearly a dozen American protesters moved in — and vowed to block Guaidó’s representatives from setting up shop.
To get in and out of the building, activists from various left-wing groups are using key cards given to them by the pro-Maduro staff.
Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the women’s antiwar group Code Pink, has joined other activists in blocking the embassy foyer with Venezuelan flags and presidential portraits of Maduro and his predecessor, the socialist icon Hugo Chávez.
“If anyone wants to come in this way, they’ll be confronted right away with pictures of Maduro and Chávez,” Benjamin said Tuesday. “We thought it was fitting.”
Guaidó, the opposition leader who declared himself interim president in January, has been recognized not only by the United States and other nations, but also by international bodies including the Organization of American States.
Maduro, who claimed victory last year in elections widely viewed as flawed, is still recognized by Russia, China, Cuba and the United Nations.
Even in many nations where Guaidó’s claim of leadership has been recognized, his “ambassadors” have found themselves engaging in a bizarre diplomatic dance.
Acting more as lobbyists than emissaries, they’re essentially volunteer diplomats — paying for their own travel, crashing at the homes of relatives and sometimes securing from foreign governments only pseudo-titles that frequently fall short of full diplomatic status. In many cases, they are coexisting in the same capitals as Maduro’s emissaries.
“It’s definitely a weird situation,” said William Dávila Valeri, Guaidó’s emissary to Austria. He flies economy from his home in Madrid to Vienna on his own dime twice a month to fulfill his diplomatic duties there. He sleeps at the home of a cousin as he lobbies the Austrians to take a harder stance against Maduro, whom the opposition blames for a mounting humanitarian crisis that has left millions of Venezuelans hungry.
Vienna has recognized Guaidó’s claim to the presidency. Yet like most nations in Europe, it has not stripped credentials from Maduro’s diplomats — creating an odd diplomatic limbo.
“Maduro’s ambassador is still around, like a Darth Vader of the revolution,” he said. “But I do have access to the government, and the media, which is important.”
Calls to Venezuela’s Communications Ministry and U.N. mission in New York were not returned.
Fabiola Zavarce, Guaidó’s representative in Panama, arrived early at a forum of regional nations in Panama City this month to deliver a speech.
She was sipping her morning coffee, she said, when a team of pro-Maduro officials waltzed in. They warned her that Venezuela’s former ambassador to Panama was on his way in and that she should leave — even though he had been stripped of his diplomatic status by the Panamanian government.
“They came in with hostile behavior,” Zavarce said. To avoid problems, she said, she left the room — a protest that was later joined by the representatives of other nations, including Colombia and Peru. Then the entire meeting was canceled.
Panama has recognized Zavarce as Venezuela’s ambassador and stripped senior Maduro appointees of their diplomatic status. Yet the embassy remains under the Maduro government’s control.
To ensure that consular services are still offered to the tens of thousands of Venezuelan nationals living in Panama, Zavarce said she has sought to tread lightly with those representatives of the Maduro government who remain.
“It is part of the challenges we are facing to represent President Guaidó,” she said.
Canada recognized Orlando Viera as ambassador in early February. But the Venezuelan consulates in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, as well as a consular office in Ottawa, are still run by Maduro officials.
“Being accredited gives me the ability to meet with foreign affairs officials regularly, to communicate Venezuela’s humanitarian emergency and press for special treatment for Venezuelans living in Canada, who often have passport problems given how inefficiently consulates are operating,” Viera said. “But Maduro’s officials still control all the data. And we don’t want to generate a clash.”
Viera works from home in Montreal and pays for his own transportation to meetings in other cities. He gets by with a staff of about 30 volunteers.
“None of us have a salary,” he said. “There’s no budget for that. We pay for everything out of pocket.”
Viera said his team has been confronted for weeks by pro-Maduro demonstrators wielding “hands off Venezuela” signs. He blames pro-Maduro officials at the embassy.
Such demonstrations have taken place in Europe, too.
In Germany, Guaidó’s representative there, Otto Gebauer, said he was arriving at a meeting with Venezuelans living in Hamburg when he was met by about 16 people holding signs, calling his team a group of “U.S. puppets” and shouting that they were “coup-mongers.”
“There were insults but no violence, since there was police there,” Gebauer said.
In Washington, Benjamin, the activist, described herself as “antiwar” and not pro-Maduro. She said her group approached the embassy staff to stage the occupation, rather than the other way around.
Four remaining pro-Maduro Venezuelan diplomats at the embassy, attached to the Organization of American States, effectively lost their status after the OAS recognized Guaidó’s envoy earlier this month. The State Department gave the pro-Maduro diplomats two weeks to leave — a deadline that runs out Wednesday.
Two other dual citizens of Venezuela and the United States who work for Maduro’s government remain. They declined to speak with a journalist, and it was unclear whether they would continue to staff the embassy after the diplomats left.
Guaidó’s representatives in the United States have already taken control of three buildings in the United States owned by the Venezuelan government — two military attaché buildings in Washington and the Venezuelan Consulate in New York City — after the diplomats attached to those missions defected from Maduro to the opposition.
Benjamin said the protesters in Washington were aiming to prevent that happening at the sprawling embassy complex in Georgetown.
“I know that Venezuelans are in a crisis, and I know there is plenty of things that the [Maduro] government has done wrong,” she said. “But I also know that the path we are going down will lead to bloodshed and maybe a civil war and decades of violence.
“We are here to say, ‘Let’s not make a bad situation worse.’ ”