A group of Nicolas Maduro supporters has occupied the Venezuelan embassy complex in Washington, vowing to block Juan Guaidó’s representatives from taking it over as power tussle between the two leaders in the crisis-ridden South American country goes on unabated.
Diplomats started leaving the building, located in the affluent neighborhood of Georgetown, after President Donald Trump announced his support and recognized Guaido, the opposition leader, as Venezuela’s president, denouncing Maduro as an illegitimate leader.
As the last of diplomats loyal to Maduro’s government left the embassy on Wednesday, the imposing four-storey structure from its facade looked more like an abandoned house than a diplomatic building.
Large, handmade banners hang from the roof of the complex, reading “No to an oil war," "Stop the coup", "Peace" and "No to deadly sanctions."
As the group of Chavistas, loyal to late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, refuse to leave, the upscale Washington neighborhood that houses the embassy appeared headed for a showdown.
Some US secret service agents stand on guard outside the building. They refused to reveal the purpose of their mission to EFE.
President Trump's government had set Apr.24 as the deadline for Maduro's diplomats to leave.
Aware of the intentions of Guaido's envoys to take control of the embassy with support from the US, the Maduro loyalists offered its keys to the so-called Embassy Protection Collective.
The protesters have been for weeks sleeping in the diplomatic building.
On Wednesday, they made a call to people sympathetic to their cause to mobilize at night and on Thursday morning to fill the building and defend it from a possible takeover or eviction.
Around 100 people responded.
From inside the embassy, Linda Helland explained to EFE that she took a week-long vacation and traveled to Washington from San Francisco to prevent "an illegal takeover of the embassy and above all prevent an illegal coup against the elected government of Venezuela."
“This is like early Sept.1973, just before the US-sponsored coup in Chile (against Salvador Allende) that led to a massacre. I was five years old then and could not do anything," Helland said.
Venezuelan Vice-Minister for North America Carlos Ron in a recorded video for the occasion expressed his disappointment for not being able to join the Chavistas in Washington and encouraged them to remain in the embassy.
One of the lawyers of the "protection collective," Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, tried to reassure those present amid rumors that the American authorities will evict the building and arrest those who resist.
"Everyone who is here, is here legally invited by the people legally in charge of this building, owned by the government of Venezuela," said Verheyden-Hilliard.
She threatened to bring lawsuits against any agent who "orders or carries out Illegal evictions or arrests."
In the embassy, the pro-Maduro activists shared gifts that the diplomats had left behind. These include CDs of Venezuelan music, books, posters of Chavez, pins commemorating the bicentennial of Venezuela's independence and figures of freedom fighter Simon Bolivar.
Surrounded by paintings of Chavez hanging on the walls, Margaret Flowers, one of the activists, told EFE that she is prepared to resist: "We are not leaving, if they tell is to leave, we will not go."
In mid-March, Guaido's envoy to Washington, Carlos Vecchio, recognized by the Trump government as the legitimate ambassador of Venezuela in the US, made public his intentions to take control of the embassy.
He took control of three of Venezuela's diplomatic properties in the US: two military attaché offices in Washington and the consulate in New York, all with US approval.
"Vecchio could not take over a McDonalds without Trump," joked Medea Benjamin, one of the organizers of the protest.
The Chavistas of the "protection collective" do not know if the authorities will actually evict them or if Vecchio will try to take control of the building. But they are aware that any scenario is possible from midnight on wards.