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On May 8, Washington, DC power company PEPCO cut electricity to the Venezuelan Embassy, increasing tensions between the Embassy Protection Collective occupying the embassy, and supporters of Venezuelan opposition leader and so-called interim President Juan Guaidó, who were gathered outside.
“Last night they turned off the electricity to people in the embassy, and the people outside were cheering as if that were a great victory, that they turned off the electricity. This makes it much harder for people inside to cook. It makes it harder for them to keep the little bit of food they have refrigerated, and they also have not been able to get food and medicines into the embassy,” said Medea Benjamin of Code Pink, one of the groups in the embassy.
Since April 10, protesters from the Embassy Protection Collective (formed by groups that include Code Pink, ANSWER Coalition, and Popular Resistance) have been inside the Venezuelan Embassy.
The Embassy Protection Collective have said they are protecting the embassy from being taken over by Venezuelan opposition, who, with help from the United States, are trying to install Guaido’s representatives at the embassy. DC police and Secret Service are also surrounding the building. International law does not allow police to enter a diplomatic building without the consent of the foreign government.
“Our whole idea of doing this is because we knew that if the Trump administration hands over this embassy to the people of Guaido, then the Venezuelan government is going to feel obligated to take over the U.S. embassy. The U.S. can call that an act of war and could use that as an excuse to invade,” Benjamin said.
The embassy has been surrounded by pro-Guaido counterprotesters who have blocked entrances to the embassy, preventing food and supplies from entering, and who have threatened and attacked the protesters.
“We have had so many people on our team that have been attacked. Every time we approach the embassy to try to deliver food, which is a human right. And I am sick and tired of it. We have somebody in the hospital right now,” Benjamin said.
Benjamin explained that the power shutdown in the embassy was the result of Carlos Vecchio, the Guaidó-appointed ambassador to the United States.
“[Vecchio] called PEPCO and he said he was the owner of the building and that he wanted it to be turned off. We have copies of the receipts of the paid bills paid by the real owners of the building, which is the Maduro government, and despite that, PEPCO turned off the electricity,” Benjamin said.
Benjamin stressed that Guaidó supporters and the Trump administration’s appeal to human rights in opposing Maduro is incompatible with encouraging sanctions.
“It’s ridiculous for the U.S. government to say that it cares about the well being of the Venezuelan people when it has sanctions that are making the lives of millions of people miserable,” Benjamin said. “We’ve seen reports that show that at least 40,000 people have died because of the sanctions. And we asked the people who were outside the embassy who call themselves ‘democracy lovers’ and want democracy in Venezuela, if they’re against the sanctions and they say ‘No, they’re for the sanctions,’ and yet they’re complaining about their loved ones in Venezuela suffering the number one thing we could do to alleviate the suffering of the people in Venezuela is to lift those sanctions.”
MEDEA BENJAMIN [I’m] wearing these glasses because I have damage in my eyes from the lasers that they’ve been shining in my eyes every night. I have damage in my ears for having heard what you just heard out there, the constant sirens and the horns in our ears. I have damage to my shoulder, shooting pain that goes down here and in my neck from having been beaten by a man because I was trying to deliver food, and I am just one person. We have had so many people on our team that have been attacked every time we approach the embassy to try to deliver food, which is a human right, and I am sick and tired of it. We have somebody in the hospital right now. We have people—we are going to be suing the Secret Service. We’re going to be suing individuals. This has been selective enforcement of the law where we get arrested instead of them. When we tried to put up a tent, and you see how the embassy is surrounded by tents of the opposition. We tried to put up one. My partner, Tighe Barry, got arrested for doing that, got held for three days in jail, and has to go back, and is being charged with an assault charge. When we tried to throw some food to the people on the balcony, they were charged with a charge I never heard of before called “throwing missiles.”
So what is going on is unprecedented. There has to be a solution that is amendable to both the United States and Venezuela. Otherwise, we are one step further on the path to a war. This is a war that John Bolton wants desperately, and this is a war that Trump does not want. I think no matter what anybody’s ideology, we have to get together. We have to stop John Bolton and Elliott Abrams, and we have to say there are solutions that are nonviolent. That’s why Mexico has put itself forward. That’s why the Vatican has put itself forward— mediation, talks, and not war. If they give the embassy into the hands of Guaido, that’s another step towards war. And here we have John Bolton, if anybody wants to hear what John Bolton has to say.
JOHN BOLTON IMPERSONATOR Hey, Mr. Trump. We need to hurry up with this war. Come on. It’ll put some hair on your chest. You guys are stooge! You guys are stooges in Venezuela. You guys are stooge! Let’s start the war!
STORE MANAGER Hey, you need to get out. I’ve asked you a few times not to create a commotion in here.
JOHN BOLTON IMPERSONATOR I’m not creating a commotion.
STORE MANAGER Yes, you are. You’re yelling. You need to leave right now. I’m the manager of this ship.
JOHN BOLTON IMPERSONATOR You’re gonna ask John Bolton to leave? I’m shocked.
MEDEA BENJAMIN Thank you for—.
STORE MANAGER Sir, you were just yelling in here.
JOHN BOLTON IMPERSONATOR I work for the president. I don’t believe this. This is ridiculous. We need our war in Venezuela. Come on, America, steal!
MEDEA BENJAMIN Thank you all. We’re sorry for the disturbance. Just follow us. Yeah, we’re leaving. [chit-chat]
MEDEA BENJAMIN So last night they turned off the electricity to people in the embassy and the people outside were cheering as if that were a great victory that they turned off the electricity. This makes it much harder for people inside to cook. It makes it harder for them to keep the little bit of food they have refrigerated, and they also have not been able to get food and medicines into the embassy and that’s been since May 1st when this crowd descended on the embassy. We’ve been living there for three weeks already without any kind of problems. And I think you can see by the actions of today— this is what we’ve been dealing with for the last nine days— that they have been blowing these sirens and horns in our ears day and night. They have been shining lasers into our eyes, which has hurt our eyes. They have been physically attacking us. We have people in the hospital right now. We have people with lots of injuries and that has only been because we’ve been trying to deliver food into the people inside. We are totally peaceful protesters.
Our whole idea of doing this is because we knew that if the Trump administration hands over this embassy to the people of Guaido, then the Venezuelan government is going to feel obligated to take over the US embassy. The US can call that an act of war and could use that as an excuse to invade. We know that Donald Trump doesn’t want a war, but he has John Bolton, he has Elliott Abrams, and they have really been gunning for a war for a long time now with Venezuela. And so, we think that our presence in the embassy is part of calling for negotiations. Put the embassies, both the US one in Caracas and the one here, in the hands of a third country to be a protectorate of that. In the meantime, that might allow the Trump administration to dial down its policy, which is a failed policy of supporting a coup leader that is not able to carry out a coup, to impose crippling sanctions on people that make their lives even more miserable. It’s ridiculous for the US government to say that it cares about the well-being of the Venezuelan people, when it has sanctions that are making the lives of millions of people miserable. So we say lift the sanctions, stop trying to overthrow the government, and instead, move into an area of talks and mediation.
CAMERON GRANADINO [REAL NEWS] And who’s behind the shut off?
MEDEA BENJAMIN Well, the shutdown was the people of Guaido, the “ambassador” here, they called Carlos Vecchio. He called Pepco and he said he was the owner of the building and that he wanted it to be turned off. We have copies of the receipts of the paid bills, paid by the real owners of the building, which is the Maduro government. And despite that, Pepco turned off the electricity.
CAMERON GRANADINO [REAL NEWS] Gotchya. So 40,000 people have died because of the sanctions?
MEDEA BENJAMIN We have seen reports that show that at least 40,000 people have died because of the sanctions. We asked the people who were outside the embassy, who call themselves democracy lovers and want democracy in Venezuela, if they’re against the sanctions and they say no, they’re for the sanctions. And yet, they’re complaining about their loved ones in Venezuela suffering. The number one thing we could do to alleviate the suffering of the people in Venezuela is to lift those sanctions.
CAMERON GRANADINO [REAL NEWS] Do you think this is just common for US foreign policy to impose sanctions on countries that they feel are in conflict with their own economic policy?
MEDEA BENJAMIN The US has used sanctions to try to institute regime change for a long time, just as it used sanctions against Iraq to try to change that government. When Madeleine Albright, who was the Secretary of State at the time, was asked if it was worth the death of what was estimated 500,000 children at that time, she said yes, it was worth it. There is a new level of using economic sanctions under the Trump administration. The way they are using them in Iran is making the 80 million people of Iran suffer. It’s collective punishment. The way they’re using them in Venezuela is collective punishment for 30 million people. And they are imposing sanctions on Russia, sanctions on China, sanctions on Nicaragua. Sanctions are just being, sort of, used as a new kind of economic terrorism and we think that the American people should wake up and realize that there’s a lot of division in this Trump administration. Donald Trump himself says he wants to get our ass out of endless wars and doesn’t want to get into new stupid ones, but he is careening towards war in both Venezuela and Iran. And I think the number one thing he should do is get rid of John Bolton.
CAMERON GRANADINO [REAL NEWS] Just taking a step back for a minute, do you think that this is about the US not being able to have global hegemony anymore and China emerging as a global economic power? Because they don’t sanction other countries they deal with. They see other countries as business partners even with their authoritarian policies, et cetera. Their economic policy is to treat everyone like a business partner, so what do you think about that?
MEDEA BENJAMIN I think China has been much smarter in its global strategy. I think it’s also in many ways using the resources of other countries for its own benefit, but it’s doing it in a much smarter way. It doesn’t do military interventions, it creates partnerships, and now the United States is threatened that it doesn’t have the same kind of power over the rest of the world. Even Latin America, which the US considers its backyard and has openly stated that the Monroe Doctrine is alive and well. That’s the doctrine that says, the rest of the world, stay out of our backyard, which is Latin America. Of course, many people in Latin America do not agree with that, but also other countries around the world like China don’t agree with that either.
So I think, it’s actually a tremendous loss for us in the United States that the Trump administration is using these kinds of policies that not only create more hatred against us around the world but is also hurting our economic interests. You hear John Bolton say that we should have the oil of Venezuela. You know, US companies have been doing business with Venezuela, they have been profiting from Venezuela, and the same with US companies who want to do business with Iran. It’s the US government that is stopping companies from doing that, so it’s neither in our security interests nor in our economic interests to have these kinds of policies that are the old style, heavy-handed militaristic approach to the rest of the world.
CAMERON GRANADINO [REAL NEWS] And so, I’ve read articles in the mainstream media talking about—even Maduro has been accused of human rights abuses, but they don’t say by whom. They just, kind of, write it and say he’s been accused of abuses, but they don’t say who was accusing him. Do you think this kind of accusation is reasonable? Is it more “complex,” this situation in terms of Maduro, or do you think they’re just painting a picture that’s not accurate because what’s really doing the damage is the US sanctions?
MEDEA BENJAMIN I think a lot of the accusations have been exaggerated, but I also think there probably is some truth to them. And when countries are under siege, their worst side tends to come out, but I can name you a lot of countries that have way worse human rights abuses that are great allies of the United States, like Saudi Arabia, like Yemen, like Honduras, like Egypt, and I could go on and on. So it’s certainly not because of human rights abuses that the US wants to overthrow this government. I also want to say that I think a lot of this is about Florida and catering to the right-wing Venezuelan Americans, Cuban-Americans, who are in Florida with the election coming up, wanting to make sure that Florida goes for Trump. That’s why Marco Rubio, Rick Scott, and the other politicians inside Florida are really making this his signature issue. Venezuela is no threat to the United States. We should be not intervening in the internal affairs. I would say this has become a domestic political issue. For Trump, I think it’s a bad gamble to be on the side of a coup that is unable to be carried out because Guaido doesn’t have the kind of support that he has been told, that Trump has been told he has inside in Venezuela. It’s just not true.
CAMERON GRANADINO [REAL NEWS] Okay. And for the people who are the opposition supporters here, where do they come from? I’ve heard different stories. Some people working for large corporations who are coming out here— for the most part, why are they out here?
MEDEA BENJAMIN I think there are different people here for different reasons. Some of them are here for legitimate gripes that they have against Maduro and things that have happened to their family. Some of them, it’s a very class issue. They want their businesses back in Venezuela. Some of them are being paid for by the Guaido people, which I think really means it’s coming from the US government. A number of them that I’ve talked to worked for large institutions like the IMF, the World Bank, the Inter-American [Development] Bank, and so, they have a view of the world that is one of neoliberal policies that they want to see instituted back in Venezuela. So I would say they come from a variety of backgrounds, but in general, they never believed in the Bolivarian Revolution.
They never liked Chavez and his redistribution of resources when there was a lot of money because the price of oil was high and there were fabulous social programs like giving homes to people who never had homes, education including college education to people who never had that before, land to people who never had access to it. They were against that from the beginning and trying to sabotage that. I think that is a continuation of the opposition to a redistributional kind of economic situation. I do want to say that I think the economy has been poorly managed by the Maduro government and that they didn’t save money when the price of oil was high and [it] could have been a time to really invest in more productive, non-oil parts of the economy. And so, there are legitimate reasons to say that the economy has been mismanaged. But again, I can show you a lot of countries around the world that have very bad economies and the US hasn’t tried to overthrow their government.
CAMERON GRANADINO [REAL NEWS] And just going back to the situation in the embassy, so what is happening currently right now? Are people in there still activists?
JOHN BOLTON IMPERSONATOR The activists who are in there, they’re amazing. They’re really heroes in this struggle. They’re not only standing firm when they don’t have enough food to eat and they’ve been rationing themselves down to things like rice and beans, but now without the electricity, it’s going to be harder even to eat. It’s going to be harder to communicate with the outside world through their computers and their phones and it makes it very difficult in the evening to not have electricity. I think it makes their lives more difficult, but they are certainly very strong and resolute, and they say this is not going to stop them.
CAMERON GRANADINO [REAL NEWS] All right, great. And I was curious, because you were talking about Maduro and the redistribution of wealth— any progressive Democrats who also believe in the redistribution of wealth, have they spoken up on this issue?
MEDEA BENJAMIN It’s not such an issue for them of redistribution of wealth. They’ve spoken up against US military intervention in Venezuela without congressional authorization and that’s why there is a bill in the House and in the Senate saying just that, against the unauthorized military intervention. It’s up to about 70 co-sponsors in the House, which is quite good. We are working with a number of different organizations to try to get more and more support for those bills and to make it clear to our representatives in Congress that we are not only sick and tired of the wars the US is already in and has been in for about 20 years now, including Afghanistan and Iraq, but we are absolutely against involvement in any new wars and that’s generalized in the population. You find the polls that have been taken say that consistently, and it’s not just a liberal Democrat kind of thing. It’s something that crosses over to Republicans and that Trump, himself, in the past has said as well.
CAMERON GRANADINO [REAL NEWS] All right. Any major misconceptions that are just still reigning in the mainstream media around this issue?
MEDEA BENJAMIN Well I have been amazed at how little coverage this showdown, this standoff, at the embassy has had, which is going on for a month now and hasn’t gotten much coverage in the mainstream press. And when it has, it has been very one-sided. It says that these non-Venezuelans are inside. Well, we are place holders for the Venezuelans, a hundred of them who were working inside that building before they had to leave. They also say that we are aggressive. We are the peaceful protesters and we are the ones who get harassed and get attacked. And so, I think there has been a lot of misinformation that’s been going out, a lot of lies that have been going out. In general, I wish that the mainstream media would cover more the heroic work that we’re doing to really try to stop another war.
It’s not many times in our lifetimes that we see a coup in real time, and this is part of a coup that we are seeing now. The attempt to get hold of this embassy is part of the coup and I’m very proud to be part of a group of people who have come from all over the country to say, not in my name. I will not sit by idly and watch the US try to overthrow a government that has done nothing to us. I won’t sit by idly to watch an embassy in the heart of Washington DC being taken over by an unelected, illegitimate opposition that is not recognized by the United Nations, that has no ability to carry out any diplomatic activities. Were it to take over this building, they couldn’t issue one passport, one visa, or anything. The only way they’d be able to get this building is because it is coming from the Trump administration, with the entire force of the security apparatus— the Secret Service, the DC police, and other police who’ve been there. I think it’s important to recognize that in our lifetimes, when we can, we have to stand up for what’s right. This is an important moment in history to stand with us and say, no to the takeover of the embassy and no to the coup.
CAMERON GRANADINO [REAL NEWS] So what’s the call out right now to activists or even people who are concerned about US intervention in Venezuela and the call to the activity surrounding the embassy?
MEDEA BENJAMIN Well for the issue right here in the embassy, we need people. So we’re saying to everybody who cares about this, come on down any time, day or night. The weekend’s coming up. Come and spend the weekend here. Do whatever you can to come here and be with us. Then, call your Congress people to tell them to support those bills that I mentioned that are in Congress right now, to say no to an unauthorized military intervention in Venezuela.
CAMERON GRANADINO [REAL NEWS] Okay. Trita Parsi was on a panel with— that was organized by Ro Khanna a couple weeks ago and one of the things that he said was that the Democratic Party needs a coherent framework when dealing with issues related to foreign policy, even domestic policy, that the Democratic Party needs a coherent framework moving forward. What do you think about this?
MEDEA BENJAMIN Absolutely. I think that it would be wonderful for the Democratic Party to have a framework that says no to unauthorized foreign interventions, a framework that says no to US military aggression overseas, a framework that says let’s get out of the wars that we’re in right now, that starts reexamining why we have over 800 military bases around the world and starts closing those bases. A framework that says, let’s look at the way-oversized budget of the Pentagon and see how we can take hundreds of billions of dollars of that, be even safer than we are today because we won’t be antagonizing people around the world, and use that money for things like the Green New Deal, for Medicare for All, and free college education. That’s what I think the general framework of the Democratic Party should be.
CAMERON GRANADINO [REAL NEWS] Okay, great. Anything that you would like to add?
MEDEA BENJAMIN I think you’ve done a very thorough interview. Thank you so much.
CAMERON GRANADINO [REAL NEWS] All right. Thank you so much.
MEDEA BENJAMIN Great. You were good!