Hugo Chávez wants to restore Venezuela's ambassador to Washington. The Venezuelan diplomat was expelled in September, after Chávez ejected the U.S. ambassador from Caracas. What happens to those fancy embassy buildings in Washington when an ambassador is ejected?
Nothing changes. The withdrawal or expulsion of an ambassador is a symbolic act of protest. The rest of the staff remains, and business continues as usual. Withdrawal of all diplomatic personnel from an embassy is a rare, cataclysmic, and sometimes violent event.
Under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, a host country can deem a member of a foreign mission a "persona non grata" for any reason or for no reason at all. The foreign government has no recourse, except for the usual reciprocal expulsion. These temporary moves are quite commonplace—Israel withdrew its ambassador to Switzerland today to protest the inclusion of Iran at the U.N. conference on racism. When an ambassador is expelled or withdrawn, the foreign government designates a stand-in for the ambassador, known as a "chargé d'affaires."
While the ambassador is easily expelled, the embassy is inviolable. The Vienna Convention requires the host country to protect the premises and prohibits the host from searching or requisitioning the property. For this reason, seizing an embassy represents a complete breakdown in relations. It has occurred only a few times in history, most famously in 1979, when Iranian militants seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held the diplomatic staff hostage. Iran still holds the building and is required by the convention to protect it against damage or "impairment of its dignity." Leaders in Tehran, however, have threatened to auction it off—another Vienna Convention no-no—to settle a court judgment. When the United States cut ties with Cuba in 1961, the Cuban government temporarily seized its embassy before permitting the Swiss to represent U.S. interests from the same building. In 1977, U.S. personnel returned to the building, even though official diplomatic ties have never been re-established.
Governments do not voluntarily abandon embassy buildings, both because they're important to diplomacy and because they're valuable. In finding and purchasing an embassy, a foreign government must act like any other buyer. It hires an agent and searches for its dream home (although there are a few frugal renters out there). Many of the lavish embassy mansions on Massachusetts Avenue in Northwest Washington were bought from wealthy families whose patriarchs died, left the area, or fell on hard times. In some cases, the foreign government purchased the furniture and decorations from the owner as well. The more lavish buildings are worth tens of millions of dollars, although most were purchased decades ago for much smaller sums. The Indonesian Embassy, now valued at more than $30 million, was purchased in 1952 for a mere $335,000. Embassy buildings do, however, occasionally come on the market. In 1927, Canada purchased its embassy from the widow of Clarence Moore (who perished in the Titanic disaster), but the country eventually outgrew its starter home and sold it to recently recognized Uzbekistan in 1996.
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Explainer thanks John B. Quigley of Ohio State University.