Under the 1961 Vienna Convention, foreign embassies are ‘inviolable’: the host country’s officials have a ‘special duty’ to protect them and can’t enter without permission. When the Venezuelan embassy in Washington DC was besieged last summer, the National Lawyers Guild said that the US government had flouted the convention by condoning the attacks and protecting those who were carrying them out.

Donald Trump withdrew recognition from Nicolás Maduro’s government on 24 January 2019, recognising instead the self-declared ‘interim president’ of Venezuela, Juan Guaidó. Maduro responded by closing the Washington embassy and ordering the US mission to leave Caracas. Five days later, Guaidó appointed Carlos Vecchio as his ‘US ambassador’, but he couldn’t move into the embassy because it was still occupied by Maduro officials. The State Department revoked their visas and told them to leave by 25 April.

On 9 April, anti-war activists in Washington formed an ‘embassy protection collective’ and were given permission by the Venezuelan government to take over the building. At the occupation’s height, there were seventy activists inside and sometimes hundreds outside. Guaidó supporters massed outside too, playing loud noises, using strobe lights, breaking windows and trying to deny access to the building. When fights broke out, it was invariably the protectors who were arrested. Food supplies were stopped, apart from what could be thrown in. Gerry Condon, a 72-year-old ‘veteran for peace’, was pulled to the ground by police and arrested on 8 May for throwing a cucumber. The electricity was shut off; a few days later, so was the water. The collective cut its numbers inside to just four, to eke out the remaining supplies.

US officials posted notices on the embassy stating that ‘the former Maduro regime’ no longer had authority over it. On 16 May, more than a hundred armed police burst in using a battering ram. They arrested the occupants, charged them with ‘interfering with protective functions’ and released them awaiting trial.

The US has diverted aid from Central America to support Guaidó, but its strategy has backfired. Several European nations initially followed the US line, but Maduro is still recognised by 150 countries and holds Venezuela’s seat at the UN. Germany and others treat their links with Guaidó as symbolic and maintain their ties with Maduro. The UK recognises Rocío del Valle Maneiro as Maduro’s ambassador in London, but also accepts Vanessa Neumann as Guaidó’s ‘representative’.

Far from taking power, Guaidó has become an embarrassment. His second coup attempt failed last April; two of his close lieutenants were accused of corruption in June; and photos of him with Colombian right-wing paramilitaries appeared in September. Tony Wood predicted a year ago that Maduro would sustain greater support in Venezuela than the US bargained for, because ‘the basic fact of sovereignty still matters to enough people.’ Despite Venezuela’s continuing economic crisis amid tightened US sanctions, his forecast has proved correct. Vice-President Pence and Secretary of State Pompeo both tweeted in support of another attempt by Guaidó to take power in November, but it failed. After a recent international tour on which he met Dominic Raab and Trump finally shook his hand, Guaidó’s return to Caracas was met with hostility from airport workers and a rally of only a few hundred supporters.

Back in Washington, the four embassy protectors faced up to a year in jail and $100,000 fines when their case came to trial this month. In extraordinary rulings, the judge prevented them from mentioning the contested presidency in Venezuela, the Vienna Convention, the permission they’d received from Venezuelan officials or the fact that, although Trump’s administration doesn’t recognise Maduro, the two governments had been in negotiation for part of last year. The judge, who appeared to know little about Venezuela but seemed to believe that Guaidó had won an election, defended Trump’s support for him by saying that ‘elections mean something.’

After confusion about the charges (were the protectors ‘interfering’ or merely ‘trespassing’?) the jury deliberated on their verdict for more than two days. Twice they told the judge that they couldn’t agree. Eventually she declared a mistrial and the defendants walked free. They must now wait until the end of February to find out if the government intends to prosecute them again. Meanwhile, the embassy building in Washington remains empty.