Venezuela's troubles overshadow Non-Aligned Summit

CARACAS (Reuters) - Worries over political protests, poor attendance and food have dominated the buildup to a Non-Aligned Summit in Venezuela instead of geopolitical issues the Cold War-era bloc was created to address.

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President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government hopes to use the event, from Tuesday to Sunday on Margarita Island in the Caribbean, to burnish its international legitimacy and counter U.S. “imperialist” power.

But opponents, campaigning to have Maduro removed this year, want to spoil the party and highlight an unprecedented economic crisis that is leaving many in the OPEC nation hungry.

“The country is going through the worst crisis in its history, and the government wastes resources like this,” complained opposition leader Henrique Capriles.

Set up in 1961, the Non-Aligned Movement provided an alternative for nations who did not back either the United States or Soviet Union during the Cold War. But its relevance has declined since the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall.

The government is stationing 14,000 security personnel on the island, about 23 km (14 miles) north of the mainland, to protect delegates coming from 120 nations.

According to local media, it has flown in special shipments of food to avoid any hiccups due to local shortages.

Venezuela is suffering a third year of recession, triple-digit inflation, shortages of basics and long shopping lines.

The government blames the oil price fall and an “economic war” by foes, while critics say 17 years of failed socialist policies and corruption are the causes.

The opposition-led National Assembly was intending to meet in Margarita at the same time, but its head says authorities have blocked legislators from flying in or going by boat.

Political demonstrations are likely, however, especially given a pots-and-pans protest in Maduro’s face earlier this month in Margarita.

The island’s palm trees, pristine beaches and turquoise waters were once a major tourist draw, but numbers have dropped due to crime and shortages.

“We’re angry and frustrated as we see the nation’s money misspent to feign a false normality,” said Margarita hotel worker Nathalie Gomez, 36. “Our children do not drink milk and people eat once or twice a day — while the politicians demand the best champagne and wine at their banquets.”

The government has not published a list of attendees, though local media have said few heads of state are expected beyond regional leftist allies like Bolivia, Ecuador and Cuba.

At the summit, Venezuela is to assume the group’s presidency from Iran, whose President Hassan Rouhani was also coming, according to the semi-official Mehr news agency.

Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe