CARACAS/PORLAMAR Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro hailed the start on Tuesday of a summit of the Non-Aligned Movement as a success despite what he said were attempts to wreck the gathering in the crisis-stricken nation.
Worries over anti-Maduro protests, poor attendance and food availability dominated the buildup to the meeting of the Cold War-era bloc on Venezuela's Margarita Island in the Caribbean.
Maduro, whom the opposition is vying to unseat via a recall referendum this year, has blamed the worries on what he says is a U.S.-led campaign seeking to sabotage his socialist administration.
"Welcome to the delegations of over 105 countries that are already here, working despite pressure from the 'gringos,' despite a right-wing lobby, despite the threats - they can't keep us back!" he said during his weekly television programme on Tuesday night.
"Today will stay in the annals of Venezuelan diplomacy for centuries to come," added Maduro, as ministers clapped.
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. Its relevance has declined since the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall.
Critics are outraged that Maduro is hosting the summit as families in the recession-hit country skip meals due to severe food shortages and raging inflation.
"We ask your governments to express solidarity with the Venezuelan people in these times of uncertainty and calamity," opposition leader Henrique Capriles said in an open letter to summit participants, urging them to speak out against Maduro.
The opposition said on Tuesday it had held two private meetings with government representatives in recent days to push for a recall referendum, without providing details. Previous talks have failed to make significant progress.
The opposition has decried a crackdown in the run-up to the summit, citing summons by the intelligence service, a raid on a Margarita mayor's home and a ban on opposition legislators flying in to the island.
A journalist publicizing a rare protest that saw Venezuelans run after Maduro in Margarita earlier this month banging pots-and-pans was jailed and accused of money laundering.
On Tuesday night another pots protest was held on the island, which is swarming with soldiers and workers touching up road markings. A newly-erected statue of late leader Hugo Chavez is set to be unveiled during the summit.
"They're painting (the island) so people can't see the reality we're living," said Eukari Bastardo, who is unemployed and was lining up for bread in the rain, as pots and pans could be heard clanging in the distance.
The noisy protest may fall on deaf ears, however, as summit participation appears thin and those coming, like leftist countries Bolivia, Ecuador and Cuba, are chiefly aligned with Maduro.
Venezuela has not published a list of attendees, but Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe, are also expected.
(Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Leslie Adler)