The red-brick embassy in the tony Georgetown neighborhood has become an unlikely flashpoint in the confrontation between populist Maduro and U.S.-backed Juan Guaidó for political power in the South American country.
Maduro invited the American activists into the embassy as the United States and another 50 countries recognized Guaidó as president and severed ties with his government. After the embassy was officially closed, the diplomats left.
The activists remain. "We are placeholders," Medea Benjamin, co-founder of one of the groups, Code Pink, told The Associated Press. They see Maduro, whose government is recognized by the United Nations, as Venezuela's legitimate leader.
"We are doing what another country will hopefully do, which is hold the space." When two countries don't have relations, it's common for a third, neutral nation to handle diplomatic functions in place of an embassy or consulate.
The Trump administration has said the activists are trespassing Venezuelan sovereign territory and need to leave. Gustavo Vecchio, Guaidó's appointee as ambassador to Washington, has said he's signed all necessary documents and it is now up to U.S. authorities to clear the building.
But the State Department, which is responsible for the security of diplomatic properties, has not forced the protesters out. A department official told the AP that it "continues to coordinate with the U.S. Secret Service and our federal and local law enforcement partners regarding the situation at the Venezuelan embassy."
The main entrance remains chained shut, but activists and other visitors continue to enter and leave through a side door. Some of the activists go to work in the morning and return in the evening. The Secret Service and other agencies are providing security, but it's still up to the activists to determine who can enter or leave. They use a photo gallery of anti-Maduro figures to screen out political foes.
Contacted by the AP, the Secret Service said it "is not facilitating, nor preventing, individuals, food, medicine, or any type of emergency services from entering the building." The activists created a so-called Venezuela Embassy Protection Collective, hanging giant posters from the roof and keeping a busy schedule of conferences, concerts, poetry recitals and other events.
They have also made themselves at home. At least a dozen people sleep inside the building, taking turns using the one shower. On visits, AP journalists saw people working on computers, preparing posters and sharing meals at a big table.
Still, some things in the embassy haven't changed. A hallway by the side entrance still displays autographed jerseys signed by Venezuelan baseball stars Miguel Cabrera, Bobby Abreu and Johan Santana. It was a relatively tranquil environment until an uprising against Maduro failed last Tuesday. Venezuelan expatriates showed up in big numbers outside the embassy and have not left since.
Vecchio initially stayed away from the embassy. But he reluctantly showed up last Wednesday following criticism from Venezuelans about why the ambassador was nowhere to be found while foreigners were hunkered down in his building.
When Vecchio started speaking, pro-Maduro activists placed a loudspeaker at the window and started singing and chanting slogans, drowning out the diplomat. The Venezuelan expatriates have also been loud — chanting slogans and occasionally blasting a vuvuzela, the long horn that is a staple at Latin American soccer matches. They have set up tents and stay overnight right outside, and they have made human chains to keep activists from going back into the building with food.
Both sides accuse each other of being obnoxious, rude and disrespectful. And both seem to be right. When Gustavo Tarre, Guaidó's ambassador to the Organization of American States, spoke outside the embassy last week, he called the pro-Maduro activists "lambucios," an expression in Venezuelan slang referring to someone who has a great desire for food.
Vecchio has been labeled on twitter as #cowardlycarlos, while the pro-Guaidó crowd has been tagged #gusanosunidos (unitedworms).
Luis Alonso Lugo on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/luisalonsolugo