Venezuela's new ambassador doesn't have U.S. embassy

By Christina Ruffini

/ CBS News

Opposition leader lays out vision for Venezuela

Carlos Vecchio is an ambassador without an embassy.

As the official representative of Venezuela's interim government to the United States, Vecchio is doing all the things a diplomat of his position should do — taking meetings at the White House, fielding questions from reporters, speaking about the need for democracy at home.

But he's doing all it from a borrowed office.

Vecchio and his team still don't have access to Venezuela's brick and mortar embassy in Georgetown. Neither the State Department nor the ambassador himself could say when, exactly, that might change.

"We want to protect, first, our assets and one of those assets is our embassy right here," Vecchio told reporters from his temporary briefing room at a Washington think-tank. "We are working on that, and I hope we can have this resolved in the days to come."

The physical embassy is an old colonial-style building a few blocks north of the upscale Georgetown waterfront. It's been shuttered since the United States recognized National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó as head of Venezuela, prompting President Nicholas Maduro to recall his diplomatic corps.

Neighbors with a direct view of the building say they haven't seen anyone come in or out of the facility since Wednesday around lunchtime, when a group of people left out the back door.

That door is now locked, and no one answers the buzzer.

A paper sign taped to the inside of main entrance says that consular services are unavailable until "further notice."

Phones ring endlessly. Even Federal Express can't deliver packages.

Vecchio, who only arrived in the U.S on Tuesday, says embassy real estate acquisition isn't his first priority, and he's more focused on facilitating a peaceful transition of power in Caracas. The fledgling Guaidó government has already begun the long and complicated process of trying to reclaim national assets previously controlled by Maduro – assets it will desperately need to help Venezuela recover.

Carlos Alfredo Vecchio (L), charge d'affaires appointed by Venezuela's opposition leader and self-proclaimed interim president Juan Guaido, reacts next to Senator Jim Risch (R-ID) after his meeting with U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee members on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 30, 2019. Yuri Gripas / REUTERS

"They are making an effort to find out, where are those assets? Where does the government of Venezuela, of last week, have accounts?" Elliott Abrams, the State Department's new special representative to Venezuela, told reporters on Wednesday. "They're hopeful there are large amounts that can be turned to humanitarian aid."

The idea is to pursue money or property in countries that have officially recognized Guaidó as the legitimate leader of Venezuela, then convince those governments to transfer any national assets to the new administration's control.

In the U.S., that could include consulates or property in big cities like New York and Miami, as well as any funds the Maduro government has in U.S. banks. But Abrams said there wasn't much money in the account for the D.C. embassy, and he wasn't sure how exactly the new government would go about reclaiming the building itself.

"I don't want to get into the legal issues because I really haven't looked at that yet, of the status of the embassy building and so forth," he said, and reiterated that "any financial asset of the government of Venezuela should be under the control of interim president Guaidó."

Until they get the keys, Vecchio and his staff will have to get by with whatever resources they can scrape together. At the press conference Wednesday, his days-old communications team used a creative combination of string and duct tape to mount a Venezuelan flag on the wall behind the podium.

As it happens, their temporary office space doesn't include a flagpole.

First published on January 31, 2019

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Carlos Alfredo Vecchio talks to the media after a meeting with U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee

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