PORLAMAR, Venezuela: Left increasingly isolated by a crushing political and economic crisis, Venezuela will seek the support of old friends when it hosts a summit of the Non-Aligned Movement this weekend.
Leaders from the 120-nation group, which was founded more than 50 years ago amid the Cold War, will gather Saturday and Sunday on the Caribbean island of Margarita, where Venezuela will take over the movement’s rotating presidency from Iran.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro will be hoping to show he still has plenty of allies despite the catastrophic situation he faces at home: a brutal recession that has unleashed shortages of food and medicine, coupled with mounting pressure from the center-right opposition for a referendum on removing him from power.
“I will make the most of the presidency of the movement to continue speaking out against this pro-imperialist right, which is on its knees for imperial interests,” said the leftist leader, who accuses his opponents of plotting a “coup” against him with US backing.
Besides moral and rhetorical support, Venezuela, an OPEC member and home to the world’s largest proven oil reserves, will notably be seeking backing for its campaign to slash abundant global crude production in a bid to raise prices.
But as the event kicked off Thursday with a meeting of foreign ministers, Maduro looked isolated as never before on the international stage, including in his own region.
On Wednesday one-time allies Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay announced they had stripped Venezuela of the rotating presidency of Mercosur, a South American regional trading bloc.
A furious Venezuela said it refused to recognize the decision.
Influence plunging with oil
Venezuela’s former largesse with its oil wealth once ensured it staunch loyalty from countries that benefited.
But as crude prices have plunged since mid-2014, Venezuela’s economy has tanked, and its international influence along with it.
Embattled and unpopular at home, Maduro has nowhere near the international clout once enjoyed by his predecessor and mentor, the leftist firebrand Hugo Chavez, who led the country from 1999 until his death in 2013.
The summit comes at a particularly tense moment.
On Friday, Venezuelan electoral authorities are due to announce the timeline for the final stage of the opposition’s recall vote drive.
Maduro’s opponents are planning the latest in a series of protests to keep up the pressure.
Political analyst Milagros Betancourt said it would be hard for Maduro to pull off his mission for the summit — “to make people think there’s nothing happening here.”
That is getting increasingly difficult.
Seeking to combat the long lines that have become a daily reality for Venezuelans, Maduro has put the army in charge of food distribution. But the shortages have triggered looting, riots and violent crime.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called the situation a “humanitarian crisis.”
“The country isn’t up to hosting this summit. It will be low-level because of insecurity and shortages,” said Betancourt.
“What (Maduro) is really seeking is a very expensive photo op that seeks to hide the grave internal crisis and international isolation,” said Kenneth Ramirez of the Central University of Venezuela.
The government has not said how many leaders will attend.
Founded in 1961 to represent countries resentful of being squeezed in the power-struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union, the Non-Aligned Movement has struggled in recent years to remain relevant in a post-Cold War world.
Venezuelan opposition leaders condemned the summit as a marginal event that will cost millions of dollars the government can ill afford.
The speaker of the opposition-majority legislature, Henry Ramos Allup, dismissed it as a “meeting of dictators.”
“They’re putting on a show that is a joke to hungry Venezuelans,” said fellow opposition leader Henrique Capriles.
Margarita island has been the scene of anti-government protests. Dozens of people were arrested there earlier this month after Maduro was greeted by pot-banging demonstrators during a visit.|
The government has deployed more than 14,000 police and soldiers to the region in a bid to contain any unrest near the summit.