In this exclusive interview, VA talks to the activists who defended the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington DC ahead of their trial.
The US government formally recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s head of state following his self-proclamation as “interim president” in January 2019, sparking a breakdown in diplomatic relations between the Maduro administration and US government.
In March, Guaido’s US representative, Carlos Vecchio, attempted to set up shop in Venezuela’s Washington DC embassy. This was thwarted, however, by around ten solidarity activists who embarked on a 37-day occupation, insisting that Guaido was unelected and had no legal basis to seize the building .
The occupation, which began on April 10, came to an end in May when the US Secret Services broke into the diplomatic building and arrested the four remaining activists, now known as the Embassy Protection Collective: Kevin Zeese, Margaret Flowers, Adrienne Pine and David Paul.
In this exclusive interview, VA’s Paul Dobson talks to them about the upcoming trial and its political consequences.
For those not familiar with the Embassy Protection Collective, can you summarize the charges being leveled against you, the process to date, and the potential scenarios ahead?
Four Embassy Protector Collective members are being prosecuted in Washington DC’s federal court for “interfering with the protective functions of the US Department of State.”
The Trump administration is arguing that our refusal to leave interfered with the government’s ability to protect the embassy.
The trial will begin on February 11 and could last approximately one week. The maximum penalties are up to one year in jail and up to a US $100,000 fine each.
Our judge is Washington DC’s District Court chief justice, Judge Beryl A. Howell, who has pushed to resolve this case quickly. Two of our lawyers had conflicts with other commitments and were removed by the judge, despite having spent six months on the case. Judge Howell has also denied all our motions for discovery (1) and is limiting both what we can say in court and how we defend ourselves. The Trump administration prosecutors have also sought to greatly limit what the jurors will be told during the trial.
Can you explain how it is that in a political trial you are banned from talking about politics?
Judge Howell is trying to keep politics out of the courtroom. As a result, the jury is unlikely to be given important facts or context to understand our presence in the embassy. This is not unusual in political prosecutions in the United States.
Under a long-time and consistently upheld US legal precedent, courts do not get involved in political questions. Particularly relevant to this case is that the US president decides who is recognized as the leader of a foreign nation. Courts do not second-guess the president’s decisions.
As a result, the courtroom will be operating within the legal fiction that Juan Guaido is president of Venezuela even though he [effectively] has not been president for even one minute.
If the prosecutors have their way, the jurors will not be told the Embassy Protection Collective was in the embassy for 37 days with the permission of the elected government of Venezuela, that Carlos Vecchio is not an ambassador but part of a failed coup, and that the Vienna Convention made it illegal for the US to enter the embassy.
They will not be told that the US Secret Service, responsible for protecting foreign embassies, worked with a pro-coup mob to terrorize members of the Collective, destroy doors and windows, break into the embassy, block food deliveries and assault activists. They will not be told the electricity and water were illegally turned off.
Our legal team is working to ensure we can present a defense to the jury by appealing to our constitutional right to a fair trial. We will also push for an appeal if we don’t achieve this, which may result in a retrial, something the judge wants to avoid. This is often the reality of the US criminal justice system.
What has the US government got to gain or lose from the case, and what might the consequences be for the US popular movement?
This trial is the state’s challenge to peace, justice and anti-imperialist activists because it was the first time US citizens entered a foreign embassy to protect it from a US-led [attempted] coup. The government wants to send a message to anyone who stands in the way of regime change efforts that they will be punished for doing so.
The government and media worked together to make sure the conflict was not covered. The media did not report on what happened because it would have raised questions about the failed US coup in Venezuela, the legitimacy of Juan Guaido, and the reality that President Maduro was democratically re-elected in May 2018.
The [attempted] coup with the puppet Guaido is becoming an increasing embarrassment to the Trump administration. Despite this, the US has renewed its commitment to fund the opposition in Venezuela and continue its assault on the sovereignty and well-being of the country.
The US government and media continue to put forward false stories about Venezuela being a dictatorship and President Maduro being a tyrant. They do not report on how the Venezuelan government, even in the midst of a vicious economic war being conducted by the United States, has worked to provide basic necessities to its people. The media does not report that the illegal unilateral coercive measures imposed on Venezuela contribute to tens of thousands of deaths. If people in the US understood that the economic war was just as devastating and deadly as a military war, they would oppose it.
If we are acquitted, it will challenge the entire narrative about Venezuela and other targets of US imperialism. It will in effect confirm that the US-led [attempted] coup and recognition of Juan Guaido are shams and that it was the US government that violated the law by invading the embassy. It would also set a legal precedent that citizens protecting an embassy do not interfere with the functions of the State Department. If the State Department had obeyed international law, there wouldn’t have been a need for an Embassy Protection Collective in the first place.
How do you see your struggle in relation to global efforts to demand respect for international law and the UN Charter?
On the day the siege of the Venezuelan embassy in Washington DC began, Venezuelan embassies in other cities [around the world] were also under attack. Social movements in those countries defended those embassies too.
Our presence in the DC embassy went on for long enough that it received attention around the world. It highlighted the lawlessness of the United States, something we describe as global gangsterism.
When the police came to the embassy to serve a clownish eviction notice falsely accusing us of trespassing, we warned them that violating the Vienna Convention by illegally coming into the embassy to arrest us would have repercussions for embassies around the world. The rule of law would be replaced by mob rule. This we are seeing come true today.
For many following Venezuelan solidarity, the occupation placed you at the center of the confrontation between imperialist domination and national self-determination. How has this experience shaped your political analysis and motivation?
When we entered the embassy and stayed there with the permission of the elected government, we did not know what to expect. For the first three weeks we were able to come and go, bring food, hold events and do our work. The police were largely absent. We hoped our presence would make it more difficult for the US to hand the embassy over to Juan Guaido’s coup allies as they had done with the consulate in New York City and military attaché offices in Washington DC.
Everything changed on April 30, the day of the attempted military coup in Caracas.
Coup supporters came to the embassy and worked with the US Secret Service to lay siege for the next 17 days. These supporters were well equipped and trained.
For those two and a half weeks, we personally experienced the racism, hatred, and violence that people in Venezuela and other countries have experienced for a long time. When our access to food, electricity and water were cut off, we experienced what it is like to live under economic warfare. Of course, what we experienced was mild compared to the violence and oppression perpetrated by the US against people in other countries.
Like people who are targeted by US imperialism, we had to adapt to the situation by finding ways to cope. Our allies on the outside risked their physical safety to outwit the mob and get food and supplies to us. Many were assaulted.
All of this gave us a deeper understanding of what the US is willing and capable of doing. The result was that it deepened our solidarity with Venezuelans and people in other targeted countries. As activists against racism, militarism, and imperialism, it strengthened our resolve to fight US interventionism, and it was a unique opportunity to take direct action against US imperialism that does not often arise.
The experience at the embassy brought us together in a profound way that made us a community, that made us sisters and brothers.
How do you respond to the pressure for you to accept a plea deal instead of taking this to the courtroom?
We had to educate some of our lawyers that a political case is different as they felt a responsibility to protect us from punishment and pushed us to negotiate.
We decided from the start that we would not plead guilty. We are not the ones who broke the law, it was the US government that violated international law and collaborated with regime-change agents who tried to terrorize us and deny us our rights.
We called ourselves the Embassy Protection Collective in part because we hoped that delaying the US’ illegal handover of the embassy to Juan Guaido would allow the two countries to negotiate a mutual protecting power agreement and resolve the issue peacefully. We worried that violating the Vienna Convention would escalate the conflict and perhaps lead to military aggression. We felt that this struggle was bigger than us as individuals.
We achieved a victory, given that the Venezuelan embassy is empty at present. Vecchio was allowed to enter for one day to take photos but is not inside as he hoped.
No matter how this prosecution turns out, our intent is to ensure it helps build the movement against US foreign intervention, economic warfare, military threats and regime change campaigns. The era of the Monroe Doctrine must come to an end and the sovereignty of all nations must be respected.
We see ourselves in a win-win situation. If we are acquitted, it will be a US jury siding with us against the coup. If we are convicted after a fictional trial, we will use that to propel the movement for peace and justice. We do not want to go to jail or to be heavily fined, but no matter how this case turns out, the movement will grow and the failure of the Venezuelan coup will be more evident to all.
How would you describe the support from grassroots and progressive groups in the US and especially in Venezuela?
We greatly appreciate the support of movements in Venezuela and the US during this entire ordeal. During the time in the embassy, we were supported constantly by people who rallied outside and who stayed through the night to watch what the mob was doing. There was a constant media presence by teleSUR, Grayzone and Mintpress News as well as social media activists.
People worked incredibly hard to allow us to continue in the embassy. We received donations and messages of support from people across the United States. We loved the messages of solidarity we received from social movements in Venezuela and appreciated the words of support from the Venezuelan foreign ministry and president.
When the Embassy Protectors Defense Committee formed, it meant it was not the four of us against the United States government, but a community of people from across the country standing together. The committee has raised funds for our legal defense and has organized speaking tours for us to raise awareness of what is happening and break through the corporate media lies. Many social movements and left-wing political parties organized these events, so it has increased our solidarity in the US. We also look forward to returning to Venezuela when we can.
In the face of the potentially life-changing consequences of the trial, how are you holding up psychologically?
We are doing well overall. We will accept the outcome of this process and are resolved to use whatever happens as a positive to keep raising awareness and building the anti-imperialist movement.
We know that being in a US prison is very unpleasant, but we also know we will still have supporters on the outside and we will get through it. We are taking steps to make sure our families and children are looked after, and our anti-imperialist work continues.
We know people who have spent time in prison. If we serve time, we will learn more about the conditions faced by prisoners and how to organize to improve them.
If we lose the case, we will know that it is not a bad reflection on us as individuals but the reality of the system in which we live. We will join the millions of other people who have had similar experiences. The psychological impact has been a greater commitment to take action for justice in the US where we have very serious economic, racial and environmental problems as well for justice in the US’ Venezuela policy.
(1) Discovery is a legal procedure in which either party or parties can request to have access to the evidence presented by the other party previous to the trial.
Featured image: The four members of the Embassy Protection Collective hang signs from the windows of the diplomatic building before being evicted. (EFE)