The Venezuelan government is spending big bucks to appear cool in front of its international guests at this week’s summit of the Non-Aligned Movement.
But the money isn’t just going towards catering to the needs of diplomats from 120 countries. The government also brought an entourage of several thousand supporters of President Nicolas Maduro to camp outside the cold-war throwback summit, where delegates are busy fretting over the threat of U.S. imperialism.
The government says the group of young loyalists are on Venezuela’s Margarita Island to celebrate the 8th anniversary of the socialist party’s youth movement, but critics say the kids were shipped into town as part of a last minute, state-manufactured show of support for the president.
Island residents have been tweeting pictures and videos that show the youth contingent arriving at a secluded port, getting loaded onto government buses, and then taken to a government tent city, complete with portable bathrooms.
Some government critics are mocking the socialist party youth, saying membership doesn’t come with the same privileges it used to.
“You don’t even get hotel rooms now. Continue to kneel down,” tweeted Justiciera 75.
“The island of Margarita is filling up with sellouts who’ve come here to applaud an illegitimate leader,” sniffed another Twitter user.
The campsite is located right next to the government run hotel where delegates of the conference are staying and holding meetings, as this video shows.
The youth movement of the socialist party has replied to the criticism by posting videos on Twitter saying that no one was forced to go to the event and insisting that everyone is having fun on the beach.
Opposition activists have long accused Venezuela’s government of paying supporters to attend marches and forcing government employees to cheer at rallies. Likeminded socialist governments, such as Nicaragua’s Sandinistas regularly use youth groups as a show of party muscle to occupy public spaces and deter would-be protesters from showing up.
That may be part of Maduro’s calculation, considering that two weeks ago, he was chased out of a town on the same island by angry protesters.
“I think they have taken those people (to Margarita) to make up for that episode,” said Melanio Escobar, a journalist who produces a daily news show that feeds off citizen journalism.
“It’s an intimidation tactic,” argued Billy Castro, a photographer who is in Margarita following the events. “What these people do is that they prevent other protesters from approaching the site of the conference. It is a security cordon for the president of sorts.”
Castro says that neighbors have complained about parts getting stolen off their cars since the contingent of government loyalists arrived on the island. He says the government supporters have set up stands outside a shopping mall that is being used by conference delegates, where they hand out pro-government propaganda.
With the youth circus going on around the summit, many Venezuelans are wondering how much it’s costing the government. Though the government has not given any official figures, opposition lawmakers estimate the summit is costing Venezuela around $200 million.
That’s a lot of dough for a country where food shortages are getting increasingly worse, and where the minimum wage is less than $40 a month, due to the prolonged economic crisis.
On Friday the opposition staged marches across Venezuela to protest the summit, and repeated calls for a referendum to remove the president.