- By Kavitha SuranaKavitha Surana is a fellow at Foreign Policy. She has reported from Italy, Germany, and Senegal and her stories have been published in the past by the Associated Press, Quartz, Al Jazeera, CNN, GlobalPost and OZY. She holds a joint master’s degree in journalism and European and Mediterranean studies from New York University.
While New York was busy gearing up for the 70th annual U.N. General Assembly, a once-proud but now worn-out international summit was already well underway south of the border.
On Sunday, Sept. 18, Venezuela wrapped up the 17th meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement, a loose international club formed in 1961 as a middle path through the Cold War polarization of the era. Originally founded by India, Indonesia, Egypt, Ghana and the former Yugoslavia, the group’s members advocated peaceful coexistence and refused to align with either the United States or the Soviet Union.
But these days the Non-Aligned Movement presents a pretty shabby picture. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, increasingly isolated on the international stage as his country descends into a maelstrom of economic dysfunction and social and political unrest, hailed the summit as a great success, calling it a meeting that would “be remembered for centuries.” But empty chairs belied his enthusiasm: Only 10 heads of state turned up to the event, out of 120 nominal member countries in the movement, many of them left-wing allies or recipients of oil subsidies.
So who was gathered around the table with Maduro? A rogue’s gallery of leaders, including Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, Cuban President Raúl Castro, Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa. Tellingly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India did not make an appearance, only the second time India had skipped the event since the movement was founded. In contrast to the heady early days of the movement, Modi is nudging India toward closer ties with the United States, especially to counter growing Chinese influence throughout Asia.
The dismal summit mirrored conditions in Venezuela, once a prosperous, oil-rich democracy but today wracked by shortages of food, medicine, and basic necessities and plagued with power outages and water cuts. The summit itself was held on Margarita Island, a once-popular tourist destination off the coast of Venezuela, that now faces daily water cuts. (The government imported food and water for the summit.)
The low attendance was especially noteworthy since leaders are already on the road for the U.N. General Assembly, and Venezuela is only a five hours flight away from New York.
Indeed, Venezuela’s opposition coalition bashed the summit as a failure, hoping to speed up a recall referendum to oust the President. “It ratifies [Maduro’s] international isolation, his diplomatic ineptitude and the world’s rejection of a regime that is a global symbol of corruption and incompetence,” the coalition said in a statement. Meanwhile the government brought in hundreds of supporters from all over the country to camp near the summit in a show of support.
Many of the countries that did come are grappling with Western sanctions, and used the summit as a platform to criticize U.S. interventionism. They also reiterated longstanding calls for reforms to the U.N. that would put more influence in the hands of developing nations.
Syria’s U.N. ambassador, Bashar Ja’afari, was also at the event, and he railed against the recent U.S.-led airstrikes that killed Syrian soldiers and ended a fragile U.S.-Russia ceasefire. He also denounced economic sanctions slapped on the country after the brutal civil war erupted in 2011.
“My country is suffering a unilateral blockade similar to the ones imposed on Cuba, Venezuela and other countries, in flagrant violation of the U.N. charter,” he said.
Maduro also blamed the United States for his country’s problems. “Venezuela is facing a global attack, which is against all of Latin America and Caribbean,” he said. “An attack that aims to impose a political, economic and cultural reorganization of our countries with the old oligarchy.”
The Non-Aligned Movement always boasted a mixed cast of characters, from South Africa’s anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela, to Suharto, Indonesia’s strongman dictator. Yet it was once a significant force in international politics, helping unite countries fighting for independence during the end of colonialism and pressing for international attention to the developing world.
But with the end of the Cold War order and plenty of economic and geopolitical upheaval since, member states have taken different paths, and most struggle to coalesce around clearly shared goals. In Venezuela, at least, those that bothered to show up mostly have one thing that unites them: Long-standing beefs with the United States.
Photo credit: RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP/Getty Images