• Only 15 heads of state attend Summit of Non-Aligned Movement
  • Opponents seeking president’s recall scorn ‘complete failure’

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro played to a sympathetic audience on familiar turf in slamming abuses by “imperialist” nations and seeking support against a “global onslaught” from his foes at home and abroad.

Few friends were there to hear his call.

What organizers of the Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement billed as “the biggest diplomatic event” in Venezuela’s history attracted only about 15 heads of state this weekend from the bloc’s 120 members. The showing paled in comparison with the previous summit in 2012, when about three dozen world leaders met in Tehran.

The turnout provided fresh fodder for Maduro’s domestic opponents, who are trying to activate a recall referendum by year’s end. In a statement Sunday, opposition coalition chief Jesus “Chuo” Torrealba called the forum a “complete failure,” saying the poor attendance highlighted the “world’s rejection of a regime that is a global symbol of corruption and incompetence.”

The Non-Aligned Movement was created a half-century ago by nations that wanted to avoid tying themselves to the U.S. or the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. Venezuela, which assumed the rotating presidency of the movement, had spent weeks promoting the event amid a wave of anti-government protests.

Banging Pots

While the 17th summit officially kicked off on Wednesday, organizers were mum on the official agenda and participants for most of the week, leaving reporters to scramble to identify attendees on Margarita Island beyond the recognizable presidents of Cuba, Iran and Zimbabwe. North Korea sent its foreign minister. Island residents banged pots and bans in protest of the event and the dire state into which the former tourist hot spot has sunk in recent years.

Triple-digit inflation and a third year of recession have sunk Maduro’s approval rating to near 20 percent, fueling the opposition’s drive to trigger a referendum despite the president’s refusal. Maduro, 53, has led Venezuela since 2013, when he succeeded the late Hugo Chavez.

Last week, the South American trade bloc Mercosur said it would suspend Venezuela if it fails to meet a December deadline to comply with the group’s human rights and immigration standards. Argentina, Brazil and Chile have levied strong criticism against their once-close regional ally for its human rights record.

Still, Maduro brushed off the criticism as he accepted the non-aligned bloc’s rotating presidency.

“An isolated country can’t assume the head of a movement of this size, and this event breaks with any indication that’s made about the country in that regard,” he said.

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