The Trump administration’s case against Venezuelan embassy protectors was severely biased, but ended up with a hung jury. The mistrial is a victory for sovereignty and democracy, and another failure in the coup attempt.
By Leonardo Flores
A hung jury in the Donald Trump administration’s case against activists who were arrested protecting Venezuela’s internationally recognized embassy in Washington, DC is being heralded as a major win for sovereignty, amid the US government’s floundering coup attempt against the Chavista government in Caracas.
On February 14, a jury of 12 DC residents were deadlocked over the issue of the embassy defenders, forcing the judge to declare a mistrial — in a blow to the federal government and to a judicial system that had stacked the odds against them.
The embassy defenders — Adrienne Pine, Margaret Flowers, Kevin Zeese, and David Paul — had been accused of “interfering with the protective functions” of the US State Department after they, as part of the Embassy Protection Collective, had spent 37 days in the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington, DC in the spring of 2019, protecting it from an illegal takeover by the US-backed supporters of coup leader Juan Guaidó.
Chief Judge Beryl A. Howell overtly favored the prosecution by severely limiting the scope of the case, ruling that the defendants were limited to speaking only about events between May 13 and May 16.
For context, the Embassy Protection Collective began staying in the building on April 11. All was peaceful until April 30, when coup supporters surrounded the embassy and attacked the protectors with physical and verbal abuse, as well as death threats.
The protectors were then put under a joint siege by the police and coup supporters — the latter of whom did all they could to prevent food from being delivered into the premises. On May 8, the electricity and water were cut off.
On May 13, they subsequently received a trespass “notice” — a piece of paper with no official letterhead, signature or seal that was most likely written in Spanish and translated. They were then asked, but not ordered, to leave the premises by police.
Finally on May 16, the protectors were arrested, when, in violation of international law, US federal agents in swat-style gear raided the sovereign Venezuelan embassy.
Judge Howell’s pre-trial decisions to severely limit the defense from putting the arrest in context ensured a bias that many observers considered impossible to overcome in a jury trial. The embassy defenders were not allowed to say that Nicolás Maduro is the president of Venezuela.
The defense was not allowed to talk about international law, including the Vienna Convention (which prohibits entry into another country’s embassy, even in times of war). They were not allowed to talk about the protecting power agreement (an agreement for third countries to ensure the safety of embassies in Caracas and DC) that was being negotiated by the US, Switzerland, Turkey, and Venezuela.
They were not allowed to mention that President Maduro, Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza, Vice Minister Carlos Ron, and UN Ambassador Samuel Moncada had all authorized the activists’ stay in the embassy. They were not allowed to discuss the fact that the Trump and Maduro administrations had been in contact throughout April and May.
They were not allowed to discuss the blatant cooperation between law enforcement and Guaidó supporters in DC. They were not allowed to discuss Guaidó’s corruption and connections to paramilitary drug cartels. They were not allowed to question Guaidó’s legitimacy.
In short, they were not allowed to tell the whole truth.
The partiality on brazen display against citizens who are supposedly presumed to be innocent made it clear that the US justice system was doing its best to ensure justice would be denied — a true kangaroo court.
The justice system’s subservience to the Trump administration’s attempt to install an unelected president in Venezuela effectively made this court that supports a coup — a kanga-coup court, if you will.
That this trial resulted in a mistrial means that US citizens saw through the farce, just as Venezuelans saw through the farce represented by Juan Guaidó.
“Elections mean something”
In explaining that the U.S. constitution supposedly grants the president authority to recognize a foreign government, the judge defended this concept by claiming “elections mean something.” Those of us in the audience found it hard not to laugh out loud.
Elections mean something, except when a U.S. adversary wins, and Washington then decides to just name someone else president, as in the case of Venezuela.
In a courtroom in which the judge had ruled that “Boliviarian” Republic of Venezuela was too confusing and therefore the country was to only be referred to as Venezuela, the “president” of Venezuela is Juan Guaidó and the question isn’t up for debate.
This isn’t surprising, given that Guaidó recently attended the State of the Union and was applauded by Representative Nancy Pelosi and other pro-regime change Democrats. Guaidó then met with President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, USAID administrator Mark Green, OAS Secretary General Almagro. And the coup leader even had 2,000 people come rally for him at a pro-coup demonstration in Miami.
The reality, of course, is wildly different inside Venezuela. There, after Guaidó’s successful” global tour, he was greeted at a rally by merely 500 people, which is actually a big improvement to rallies just a few months before, where he was cursing the fact that same dozen or two “jerks” were the only ones to show up to events.
At the height of Guaidó’s popularity, around 2014 and 2015, the opposition drew massive crowds of tens of thousands. Pro-government rallies, on the other hand, routinely turn out tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands.
More footage emerging of Guaidó’s arrival to Caracas yesterday. Here he is physically assaulted, called a murderer and chased away from the airport.
But Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi swear he’s loved by the people of Venezuela 🤔🤔🤔 pic.twitter.com/J6f4k55KB6
— Dan Cohen (@dancohen3000) February 12, 2020
While Guaidó may have looked presidential during his U.S. tour, the façade was broken within minutes of landing in Venezuela. Workers from the state airline Conviasa, which was recently sanctioned by the Trump administration, confronted the coup leader at the airport, leaving him shaken and drenched in sweat — a “’president” afraid of his own people.
That Guaidó has fallen so low is an indictment of an extremist right-wing opposition that seeks to punish the working class by supporting sanctions, threats of war, and the sabotage of basic services. (Guaidó’s arrival came mere days after a warehouse containing telecommunications equipment was set on fire, while the next day a metro line went out of service after a cable line was cut.)
Failed coup frontman Juan Guaido gets a taste of how Venezuelan citizens feel about his circuit through foreign countries trying to drum up support for regime change immediately after landing at Caracas airport pic.twitter.com/yjayHW3O1X
— Alex Rubinstein (@RealAlexRubi) February 11, 2020
Incompetence mirrors incompetence
The failure of Juan Guaidó, the opposition, and the Trump administration is also indicative of their incompetence and utter confusion regarding the reality of Venezuela. This incompetence mirrors the incompetence of the U.S. government in the sham trial of the embassy defenders.
Prosecutors attempted to pull a bait-and-switch on the jury, building their case on an allegation that the “final four” – as Margaret, Kevin, David, and Adrienne are affectionately called – were trespassing in the Venezuelan embassy, while the actual charge was a misdemeanor of “interfering with protective functions.”
At least some members of the jury were clearly perplexed by this, asking the judge for clarification of whether trespassing could be perceived as interfering. Although the answer should have been a clear “no”, the judge obfuscated and left them more confused than before they asked the question.
The jurors then brought up a seeming contradiction between the law and the judge’s instructions. The law regarding interfering with protective functions requires that alleged perpetrators “knowingly and willfully” interfered, while the judge instructed the jury that the defendants did not have to have knowledge of the statute in order to be convicted. One observer characterized the judge’s response to the jury on this issue as “a riddle.”
A bewildering judge and a bumbling prosecution led to a deadlocked jury. Three jurors voted to acquit. They apparently recognized that the government was trying to railroad the defendants.
This shows that people of conscience can thwart a government intent on criminalizing peace activism.
The defendant’s four lawyers also managed to instill reasonable doubt, against all odds.
The Embassy Protection Collective brought people’s power to Washington, and it was only fitting that it was people’s power on the jury that led to a mistrial.
However, the mistrial is not quite the end of this ordeal. The final four have one last status hearing to determine if the prosecution will retry the case.
For me, as a Venezuelan who has spent a dozen years helping my country resist U.S. imperialism, what these four people did, as well as what the entire Embassy Protection Collective did, has earned them my gratitude and admiration.
David, Margaret, Kevin and Adrienne are deserving of our full solidarity and support.
They have left me hopeful and inspired that we can build a movement in the United States to challenge a foreign policy based on war and profits, and replace it with one built on peace and dialogue.
Leonardo Flores is a Latin American policy expert and campaigner with Code Pink.
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