Margarita Becomes Flash-Point for Venezuela’s Political Crisis

(Bloomberg) -- Venezuela’s Margarita Island, the so-called Pearl of the Caribbean, is emerging as a flash-point for the South American country’s political crisis as President Nicolas Maduro prepares to welcome the 17th summit of the Non-Aligned Movement there next week.

While the government has been mum about exact plans for the summit that runs from Sept. 13-18 and has not yet released a list of attendees, the timing couldn’t be worse for Maduro. In the midst of an economic and political crisis as the opposition seeks a recall referendum on his rule, Maduro faced an embarrassing protest there last week that went viral on social media.

Venezuela’s opposition has signaled that they’ll use the meeting of the group of about 120 developing countries including Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Syria to draw attention to their cause. The country’s National Assembly, which is controlled by the opposition and frequently draws the ire of Maduro, said in a statement posted on its website that it will try and hold a session on the island to coincide with the summit on Sept. 15. Maduro is unlikely to let that happen easily.

“It’s crazy to hold the summit there under this context and with everything that has happened,” Margarita Lopez Maya, a historian at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas who specializes in social movements, said in a telephone interview. “I don’t know what they think they can do on an island where people are practically eating garbage, where conditions have worsened and where discontent is high.”

Past Controversy

The Non-Aligned Movement, known as NAM, is no stranger to polemics. Their last meeting in Tehran in 2012, saw controversy after United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s decision to attend the summit drew the chagrin of the U.S. and Israel. Ban will not attend next week’s gathering, but he will be represented, said Stephane Dujarric, the spokesman for the Secretary-General in an email.

Margarita Becomes Flash-Point for Venezuela’s Political Crisis

The schedule for the summit includes a conference for heads of state on Sept. 17-18 at the Hotel Venetur Margarita, or the old Hilton Hotel, which in 2009 hosted the second Africa-South America summit that was attended by the former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. Former President Hugo Chavez liked the hotel so much he later seized it for the state.

Qaddafi, who traveled with an extensive delegation, pitched his trademark tent next to the pool at the hotel for the duration of that summit.

Capriles Besieged

Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, the governor of Miranda state and twice-unsuccessful candidate for president, flew to Margarita Wednesday night and found himself besieged by what he said were armed Maduro supporters who had gathered outside the airport.

“To the ambassadors of the Non-Aligned countries, tell your governments that the airport where the summit is being held has been surrounded by armed gangs,” Capriles said late Wednesday in a post on his Twitter account. “Maduro is taking the country’s situation to the limit, and it’s very dangerous.”

Capriles posted several videos of the incident on his Twitter account, although no actual weapons could be seen in any of the videos. Venezuela’s Information Ministry declined to comment on the incident when contacted by telephone.

Recall Referendum

Racked by triple-digit inflation and empty store shelves, Venezuelans gave the opposition control of Congress in elections last year. The opposition is pushing for the national electoral council to authorize a recall referendum on Maduro before the end of the year in an effort to trigger fresh elections.

Margarita Becomes Flash-Point for Venezuela’s Political Crisis

The president has so far brushed off any chance of a vote before year’s end. He’s also accused the opposition of trying to foment a coup and promised to defend the “socialist revolution” started by Chavez.

The release of a video of Maduro being heckled by angry protesters in the Villa Rosa neighborhood of Margarita Island was widely shared on social media earlier this month. It brought back memories of 2014, shortly before nationwide protests erupted, when Maduro was booed in public by crowds attending the opening of the Caribbean Series baseball tournament being played on the island.

Completely Booked

Venezuela’s Information Minister Luis Jose Marcano said in posts on his Twitter account that the video of Maduro and the protesters had been “manipulated.” He posted a different video of a smiling Maduro waving his hand to supporters.

Braulio Jatar, a journalist who edits the Reporte Confidencial website that is often critical of the government, is being held on the island after he was charged with money laundering following the publication on his website of an account of what happened in Villa Rosa, according to his defense lawyer Diomedes Potentini.

Around 12,000 to 13,000 people are expected to visit the island next week for the summit, and all hotels rated 3 stars and above are completely booked, said Jose Yapur, the president of the tourism chamber of trade group Fedecamaras, adding that embassies had been making arrangements to deal with food scarcity on the island.

“There won’t be any supply problems, because the great majority of the delegations have taken responsibility for getting their own supplies,” he said in a phone interview from Margarita Island. “Their embassies have been sending what they need to the island for the past several weeks.”