Venezuela on Tuesday kicked off the 17th summit of the Non-Aligned Movement on Margarita Island as it attempts to divert attention from the collapse of the nation's economy by preparing to host delegates from countries such as Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Syria.
''This is the biggest diplomatic event in Venezuela's history, with more than 160 international delegations,'' Samuel Moncada, vice minister for European relations, told reporters on Tuesday in Margarita. The vice minister didn't provide details on which delegations had confirmed attendance.
The stakes are high for the government of President Nicolas Maduro as the opposition is calling for fresh protests as it seeks a recall referendum on his rule. Earlier this month, he was chased by protesters on the island banging pots and pans as many Venezuelans are struggling in the midst of triple-digit inflation and shortages of many staple goods. The president has accused the opposition of seeking a coup to topple his rule and has vowed to defend the ''socialist revolution'' started by his predecessor, Hugo Chavez.
''Our country is under the threat of imperial aggression, and with this summit, we'll demonstrate that we are a peaceful country that is overcoming the difficulties we're facing,'' Moncada said.
The scene on Tuesday was different. The national guard stood watch throughout the resort-island - known in the past as the Pearl of the Caribbean - as transit officials searched cars that approached hotels hosting events. All passengers flying in from the Venezuelan mainland were inspected after authorities earlier in the week banned general aviation and the use of drones on the island for the duration of the summit that runs through Sunday.
A schedule for President Maduro was not released and authorities have yet to confirm which leaders will be attending. One exception was Iran's Tasnim news agency, which reported on Monday that President Hassan Rouhani would go. Foreign ministers are expected to meet on Thursday and Friday, according to the summit's website, followed by meetings between heads of state on Saturday and Sunday.
While short on details on the nature of the meetings and the list of attendees, organisers of the summit provided ample guidelines on how participants should dress during the event.
''A fine Guayabera with long sleeves is considered a formal dress in tropical countries,'' an operating manual for the summit read, referring to the traditional men's shirt that features pleated tucks and is usually made of cotton, linen, or silk. The manual stated that men could also wear the traditional Liqui-liqui suit, while women were encouraged to wear dresses or pantsuits made of cotton.
Calling the summit a ''meaningless show,'' opposition secretary general Jesus ''Chuo'' Torrealba said in a statement Monday night that ''Margarita Island is occupied militarily by people armed to the teeth'' and called for a nationwide protest on Friday, when the electoral body, known as the CNE, is expected to establish a timetable for the recall process against Maduro.