The Venezuelan embassy isn’t big enough for the both of us

. Oct 07, 2020
The Venezuelan embassy isn't big enough for the both of us People at the entrance of the Venezuelan Embassy in Brasília. Photo José Cruz/ABr

Diplomatic relations between Brazil and Venezuela reached an all-time low with the former electing far-right President Jair Bolsonaro in 2018. Now, almost two years on, the grave is being dug even deeper. In its latest demonstration of hostility toward the Nicolás Maduro administration in Caracas, the Brazilian government moved to make all of the Venezuelan left-wing leader’s diplomats personae non gratae in the country. In practical terms, these staff members are allowed to remain in Brazil, but they have been stripped of their diplomatic status, along with other immunities and protections ensured around the world. 

The decision came as little surprise, from a government that recognizes Mr. Maduro as Venezuela’s “illegitimate” leader. After the administration in Caracas publicly demanded answers from Brazil over what it called the country’s “criminal negligence” in facing the Covid-19 pandemic, the Bolsonaro government moved to further isolate Mr. Maduro’s diplomatic representation in Brazil.

</p> <p>Recognizing the head of Venezuela&#8217;s National Assembly Juan Guaidó as Venezuela&#8217;s rightful leader, Brazil had already decided to close its embassy in Caracas along with a series of consulates around the country. Brazilians in Venezuela were told to seek guidance in Colombia, while diplomats and employees were brought home.</p> <p>The Bolsonaro government had already ordered the expulsion of Venezuelan diplomats back in April, but the <a href="">decision</a> was blocked by the Supreme Court due to humanitarian reasons, with both countries in the throes of the Covid-19 pandemic. The court&#8217;s ruling, however, is only an injunction and could be overturned at any moment, thus forcing the deportation of Mr. Maduro&#8217;s embassy staff.</p> <p>The struggle for power in Venezuela has created several knock-on effects in Brazil&#8217;s capital. Since February 2019, the country has actually had two separate embassies, neither one of them functioning properly. The 230,000 Venezuelans that sought refuge in Brazil, fleeing the economic collapse in their home country, are left to fend for themselves for many consular services.</p> <p>The official Venezuelan Embassy in Brasíla — which takes orders from the Nicolás Maduro government — has been without an ambassador since May 2016, when Alberto Castellar was brought back to Caracas in response to the impeachment of then-President Dilma Rousseff, a process Venezuela labeled a parliamentary coup. Since then, the diplomatic mission has been led by <em>chargé d&#8217;affaires </em>Freddy Margote, who maintained a relationship with Brazil&#8217;s Foreign Affairs Ministry during the Michel Temer government, before being completely cut off after the election of Mr. Bolsonaro.</p> <p>Now, without recognized legitimacy from the current Brazilian government or financial assistance from Venezuela amid the country&#8217;s long-lasting economic nightmare, the Venezuelan Embassy in Brasília does not provide any of the standard services expected from diplomatic missions, such as issuing visas. Moreover, there is no money to pay utility bills, such as electricity and water. Brazilian left-wing activist organizations have stepped in to use the embassy&#8217;s facilities in exchange for paying their bills on time.</p> <h2>Leasing out the Venezuelan Embassy</h2> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="1024" height="768" src="" alt="Almost deserted, the &quot;traditional&quot; Venezuelan Embassy leases its auditorium to left-wing events. Photo: MST" class="wp-image-50743" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 600w, 1280w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>Almost deserted, the &#8220;traditional&#8221; Venezuelan Embassy leases its auditorium to left-wing events. Photo: MST</figcaption></figure> <p>The Venezuelan Embassy sits on a massive plot of land in Brasilía&#8217;s Embassy Sector, donated to the country when the <a href="">city was constructed </a>in the late 1950s. One two-story building houses the embassy offices, while other constructions serve as homes for the diplomats and their families. There is also a large round swimming pool, beside a football pitch with a small grandstand.</p> <p>The walls of the embassy building are decorated with posters and portraits of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, while there is only a single picture of current President Nicolás Maduro hanging in one of the halls. Outside, Venezuelan flags flutter in the wind, alongside those of left-wing Brazilian political parties and social movements.</p> <p>Due to their severe lack of funds, the embassy&#8217;s security is operated by local supporters of the Maduro regime. Members of the Landless Workers&#8217; Movement (MST) patrol the perimeter of the area, while others tend to the gardens and clean the halls. The need for 24-hour security came after an incident in November 2019, when a group of Juan Guaidó supporters broke into the embassy and intended to squat, using the coincidence with the annual BRICS summit — taking place just a few kilometers away — to draw attention to their cause. They eventually vacated the premises by the end of the day, amid pressure from left-wing social movements, whose members surrounded the embassy.</p> <p>In exchange for its assistance with security, maintenance, and paying utility bills, the MST has used the Venezuelan Embassy as its headquarters in Brasília. It often holds events held in the building&#8217;s auditorium, inviting leaders from the movement and members of other left-wing groups.</p> <h2>The Other Ambassador</h2> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="1024" height="683" src="" alt="María Teresa Belandria is recognized by Brazil as the righteous Venezuelan diplomat. Photo: Anabel Morey" class="wp-image-50742" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 600w, 1200w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>María Teresa Belandria is recognized by Brazil as the righteous Venezuelan diplomat. Photo: Anabel Morey</figcaption></figure> <p>Meanwhile, as the official embassy barely remains open, the Brazilian government recognizes lawyer, professor, and diplomat María Teresa Belandria as Venezuela&#8217;s legitimate ambassador in the country, after she was appointed to the role by Juan Guaidó&#8217;s National Assembly in February 2019.</p> <p>However, she works out of a hotel room in the Brazilian capital, alongside her deputy Silva Guzmán and three other staffers. The work of this &#8220;parallel embassy&#8221; is funded privately, but the employees refused to reveal who is paying their expenses.</p> <p>Mr. Guaidó&#8217;s representatives are welcomed by Brazilian authorities and treated with diplomatic deference by the closest allies of President Bolsonaro — particularly one of his sons, Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro.&nbsp;</p> <p>Furthermore, without access to the Venezuelan government&#8217;s communication systems, Ms. Belandria&#8217;s team is unable to issue visas or passports, or perform the vast majority of consular services.</p> <p>The impasse remains, however. If the Bolsonaro government decides that Juan Guaidó&#8217;s diplomatic representatives have the right to use the Venezuelan Embassy in Brasília, the current tenants are unlikely to vacate willingly.</p> <p>The hotel-dwelling members of the parallel Venezuelan Embassy are assured of their legitimacy. &#8220;Ambassador Belandria has been recognized as such by the Brazilian government, as has her deputy Silva Guzmán. Both are treated by government agencies as being Venezuelan authorities,&#8221; said the group&#8217;s press officer, who also doubles up as Ms. Belandria&#8217;s driver.</p> <p>However, this recognition comes with responsibility. In May, Ms. Belandria was held responsible for a case filed by the Labor Prosecution Service against the Venezuelan Embassy in Brasília. Brazilian employees working in the embassy have gone without pay for months, according to the complaint. Ms. Belandria responded, saying that she has no way of paying this debt, as she does not even know the quantity or identity of the embassy&#8217;s employees, as she is denied access to the premises.

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Renato Alves

Renato Alves is a Brazilian journalist who has worked for Correio Braziliense and Crusoé.

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