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Embassies to battlegrounds

From Assange to López, refugees come with baggage

  • Sun Sentinel Broward Edition
  • 9 May 2019
  • By Emily Tamkin

WASHINGTON — Spain has found itself unexpectedly in the middle of Venezuela’s political crisis.

The Spanish Embassy in Caracas is providing refuge to Leopoldo López, the Venezuelan opposition leader, who, after years of house arrest, unexpectedly joined Juan Guaidó last week in calling for an uprising against President Nicolás Maduro.

Guaidó, leader of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, declared himself interim president in January and is recognized as Venezuela’s rightful leader by several countries, including the United States. That López, who said he was freed by apparently sympathetic military personnel, stood by Guaidó’s side was meant to galvanize people to the streets. But López could not stay among the people and so sought refuge first in the Chilean Embassy and then in the Spanish one in Caracas.

On Thursday, Venezuela’s Supreme Court issued a warrant for López’s arrest. Later in the day, Spain said it would not turn López over. But, a day later, Spain’s acting foreign minister, Josep Borrell, said his government would “limit” López’s political activities and “will not allow its embassy to turn into a center of political activism,” in what was perhaps a reminder to the opposition figure, who had given a news conference at the embassy gates, that he was not to use his temporary lodging as a media center.

Spain is hardly the first country to become entangled in a political situation by providing refuge to a high-profile figure. Here are a few other countries that are currently or have recently found themselves where Spain sits.

Freddy Guevara in the Chilean Embassy in Venezuela, ongoing: López and his wife and daughter first went Tuesday to the Chilean Embassy in Caracas, but that diplomatic mission already had a guest — Freddy Guevara, who last month described the Chilean ambassador’s residence, where he has been holed up since late 2017, as “my golden cage” to the Wall Street Journal. Guevara, another leader of Venezuela’s opposition, has a bedroom, a chef and a pool and garden. The Chilean ambassador at the time of his arrival, Pedro Felipe Ramírez, had to get permission from his government to allow Guevara to stay. Ramírez was one of roughly 50,000 Chileans who got asylum in Venezuela after Augusto Pinochet took over in 1973. Roberto Enríquez, yet another Venezuelan opposition figure, also has been Chile’s diplomatic guest for two years.

Berhanu Bayeh and Addis Tedla in the Italian Embassy in Ethiopia, ongoing: Almost three decades ago, the Soviet-supported Derg regime in Ethiopia was forced out, and four senior ministers who had been accused of ordering mass killings found their way into the Italian Embassy. In 2004, in response to a request from the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry, Italy said it would not turn the men over. It reiterated that stance to Vice News in 2015, when it confirmed that two of the four men, former chief of general staff Addis Tedla and former foreign minister Berhanu Bayeh, were still living there. The other two had died in the interim. Tedla and Bayeh were still there earlier this year, per the Ethiopian Observer, though they are reportedly “nuisances” for Italian officials.

Julian Assange in the Ecuadoran Embassy in Britain, 2012-2019: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange spent almost seven years in the Ecuadoran Embassy in London. Ecuador invited the Metropolitan Police into the embassy to arrest him earlier this year after months of complaints by officials about his purported poor attitude and hygiene. WikiLeaks editor in chief, Kristinn Hrafnsson, countered a question from a Der Spiegel interviewer about Assange’s alleged problematic behavior by saying, “They once found a stain on the light switch of the toilet and alleged it was feces from Julian. This report was used by the president of Ecuador as evidence that Julian had been smearing feces all over the walls of the embassy. I mean, how low can you go?”

Roger Pinto in the Brazilian Embassy in Bolivia, 2012-2013: Sen. Roger Pinto, who was part of Bolivia’s small right-wing opposition, said in 2012 that he and his family had received death threats after accusing President Evo Morales’s government of corruption and so sought refuge in the Brazilian Embassy. He stayed there for over 450 days, because, though he’d won asylum from Brazil, Bolivia didn’t recognize it. In 2013, with some at the embassy concerned about Pinto’s health, a diplomat named Eduardo Saboia decided to take matters into his own hands and helped smuggle Pinto out of Bolivia and into Brazil. Saboia claimed he acted without permission, but Brazil’s foreign minister was subsequently replaced.

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