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Venezuela hosts Latin American leftists as critics fume

July 26, 2019
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Participants sit close to sign of the Sao Paulo Forum and Venezuela's Socialist Party during the Sao Paulo Forum, in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday, July 26, 2019. Hundreds of delegates from Brazil, Colombia, Puerto Rico and other places flocked to a hotel for the four-day Sao Paulo Forum, first held in Brazil in 1990.(AP Photo/Leonardo Fernandez)
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Participants sit close to sign of the Sao Paulo Forum and Venezuela's Socialist Party during the Sao Paulo Forum, in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday, July 26, 2019. Hundreds of delegates from Brazil, Colombia, Puerto Rico and other places flocked to a hotel for the four-day Sao Paulo Forum, first held in Brazil in 1990.(AP Photo/Leonardo Fernandez)

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Leftist activists from around Latin America on Friday gathered at a Caracas forum that drew criticism from opponents who say the country is wasting meager resources to entertain hundreds of international guests.

Delegates from Brazil, Colombia, Puerto Rico and other places flocked to a hotel for the four-day Sao Paulo Forum, first held in Brazil in 1990. Some wore Che Guevara T-shirts and posed for photos, while others passed by stalls selling handbags made by indigenous communities.

A sign said “Trump, Unblock Venezuela,” suggesting U.S. sanctions aimed at toppling President Nicolás Maduro are driving the country’s economic problems.

Elsewhere in Caracas, a small group of protesters blamed government looting and mismanagement for Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis. Protesters included members of Justice First, an opposition party that said Venezuelan funds were being spent on delegates who “came to the country to support a dictator who violates human rights.”

The forum comes just days after a nationwide, nine-hour blackout knocked out power and communications to Caracas and much of the country, similar to much longer outages in March.

But some experts offered a nuanced picture, saying the economy has already long been in a tailspin and that U.S. sanctions targeting the oil industry and financial transactions are making things worse.

On Friday, lights blazed in conference rooms at the Hotel Alba, the forum venue that was once part of the international Hilton hotel chain.

Rosa Elvinia Beltrán, a Colombian delegate, said her goal in Venezuela was to publicize the killing of community leaders in her country.

“It’s hard to find solutions,” Beltrán said. “We have to do it through protest.”

For Venezuelan delegate José Castillo, Venezuela is ground zero for an old ideological divide, led by a Russia-backed government that professes to be a champion of socialism and is in conflict with what he called “the biggest imperialist power in the world.”

The United States and dozens of other countries back Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who said Maduro’s re-election last year was a sham and declared himself interim president in January. Despite intensifying pressure, Maduro has held on to power with the military’s support.

The Sao Paulo forum, held almost annually and hosted by Cuba last year, was founded as Latin American leftists sought to re-organize after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

One forum visitor Friday was Segun Showunmi, a political opposition figure from Nigeria who came to assess Latin America’s left. He said many groups appeared to be “hung up on the ideology of liberators” such as Fidel Castro, but that he liked their enthusiasm.

“I think they’re not doing too badly,” Showunmi said. “I think they could be better on organization.”

Speakers delivered routine denunciations of the United States. But at a booth depicting Venezuelan public works projects, state engineer Ovidio Morillo warmly welcomed an American visitor from New York and asked about his favorite baseball team.

“Yankees or Mets?” asked Morillo, who said he personally preferred the Pittsburgh Pirates.

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Follow Christopher Torchia on Twitter at www.twitter.com/torchiachris

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