Valley activists report back on standoff at Venezuelan Embassy

  • Paki Wieland, right, and Julie Leak are shown inside the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Supporters of Nicolas Maduro look out the windows of the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington, May 2. Supporters of opposition leader Juan Guaidó supporters blocked the entrances to the embassy, cutting off supplies to pro-Maduro supporters occupying the building. AP PHOTO

  • Signs hang on the chained front door to the shuttered Venezuelan Embassy in Washington D.C., Thursday, April 25, 2019. Activists have been staging a round-the-clock vigil inside the embassy, occupying it to prevent representatives of Juan Guaidó, opposition leader and self-proclaimed interim president, from taking over the building. AP PHOTO/Patrick Semansky

  • Activists work inside the Venezuelan Embassy, Thursday, April 25, 2019, in Washington, D.C., during a round-the-clock occupation of the building to prevent access to representatives of Juan Guaidó, ​​​​opposition leader and self-proclaimed interim president of Venezuela. AP PHOTO/Patrick Semansky

Staff Writer
Published: 5/13/2019 2:39:11 PM

This story has been updated.

NORTHAMPTON — Pioneer Valley residents supporting the government of President Nicolás Maduro were among the activists occupying the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington in a standoff with supporters of the country’s self-declared interim president, Juan Guaidó.

And despite having water and power shut off inside the building, activists intend to keep put, said longtime Valley activist Paki Wieland, who left the embassy Saturday afternoon.

“Our resolve is very strong,” she said Monday. “The people inside are determined to stay there.”

Wieland, who currently splits her time between Washington and Conway, is part of the Embassy Protection Collective, which was invited to stay in the embassy by President Maduro’s government on April 10. The last of the staff left the embassy in April.

“What would you do to prevent a war?” Wieland asked in a text message on Friday, when she was still in the embassy. “This is my answer.”

Wieland is a member of the Raging Grannies — a group of older women who protest for peace and social and economic equality — and a member the western Massachusetts chapter of Code Pink, one of the organizations in the collective.

Garret Schenck, an Easthampton resident, also left the embassy Saturday and has now returned home to the Pioneer Valley, said Wieland.

According to posts on Code Pink’s Facebook page Monday night, an attempt is being made to evict the collective from the embassy, but four activists remain inside. The eviction notice posted said that the U.S. does not recognize the authority of the Maduro regime over the property.

Currently, there is a conflict in Venezuela between Maduro and his government and Guaidó, the president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, who declared himself interim president of the country in January.

The United States, United Kingdom and a number of Latin American and European countries have recognized Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president, while other countries, such as Russia and Bolivia, continue to back Maduro.

The conflict deepened when Guaidó launched an unsuccessful uprising to topple Maduro on April 30. The same day, Wieland said that the activities of pro-Guaidó protesters surrounding the embassy intensified. The protesters have physically blocked people from entering the embassy since then.

Ellen Graves, another member of the western Massachusetts chapter of Code Pink, said she was one of the last activists to enter the embassy and that she sneaked in through the garage on April 30. She left May 3 and is now home in West Springfield.

Speaking by phone, she said of the protesters outside the embassy: “They were just really, really angry. Really, really intense.”

Many of the protesters outside are Venezuelan, expats who oppose Maduro and want the American activists out of the embassy.

Protesters have prevented food from getting inside the embassy, although Wieland said that some food has managed to make it inside.

Power to the embassy was cut last Wednesday night, and water was cut off on Friday night. Wieland said that she and others left on Saturday in order to preserve resources. She framed it as a survival-of-the-fittest situation — the activists who were most essential to the effort stayed behind, she said.

“I sometimes refer to it as ‘the culling of the herd,’” Wieland said. “I chose to get on the iceberg and float out to sea.”

Wieland said that she has reached out to her congressional representatives to lobby for restoring freedom of movement to the activists who are still inside the embassy. The Resistance Center for Peace and Justice, based in Northampton, also sent an email to its listserv asking people to lobby on behalf of those in the embassy.

Jeff Napolitano, the executive director of The Resistance Center, said that he doesn’t know of anyone who has heard back from Sen. Elizabeth Warren or Sen. Ed Markey, but that he spoke to Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Worcester, who said he would be looking into the situation on Monday when he returned to Washington.

‘Like we were hostages’

Wieland has now joined the efforts of activists outside the embassy supporting the activists still inside. She said that those outside attempted to give flowers to the mothers among the pro-Guaidó protesters on Mother’s Day, but the flowers were refused.

Asked what it was like being inside the embassy after the activists were unable to come and go, Wieland said, “In a sense, it almost felt like we were hostages.”

In addition to pro-Guaidó protesters on the street, people cheering on the activists have gathered outside.

“I would spend a lot of time in the window just cheering back,” Wieland said.

She also said that she “did a lot of cooking.”

After power was cut off, Wieland said that the activists inside began making a number of raw food dishes. They soaked pasta overnight to soften it.

“It doesn’t need to be cooked,” Wieland said.

She also said that when she left there was a plan afoot to sprout beans, and that the activists had prepped water supplies before the water shutoff.

Wieland said that the chief complaint of the protesters is that the activists inside the embassy are not Venezuelan. But she explained that the plan is for them to stay in the embassy until the Venezuelan government returns or a third-party country takes it over.

“We’re placeholding,” Wieland said.

Priscilla Lynch, also of Conway, a founder of the western Massachusetts chapter of Code Pink, was in the embassy as part of the collective from April 29 to May 3. She said that normally when a government’s diplomats leave an embassy because of a dispute with a host country, a neutral country takes over the space.

If that were to happen, “It is my understanding that the collective would leave,” Lynch said.

Lynch said the protesters outside have been harassing the activists and that she witnessed name-calling, profane gestures, bullhorns and the beating of pans.

“There were racial slurs,” Lynch said. “We would have no problem with them being there if they weren’t being abusive.”

Lynch also raised concerns about the conduct of the U.S. Secret Service, which she said has stood by and allowed protesters to become “vigilantes,” destroying cameras on the outside of the building and damaging doors.

The Gazette’s attempts to reach the Secret Service were unsuccessful. The Associated Press reported last week that the Secret Service said it “is not facilitating, nor preventing, individuals, food, medicine, or any type of emergency services from entering the building.”

Should freedom of movement and water and power return to the activists inside the embassy soon, Wieland said she may also return.

“The more people in there,” she said, “the more alive the building is.”

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.




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