GLOBAL ECONOMY

Iranian president among leaders attending summit in once idyllic Venezuelan island

World leaders flying in to Isla Margarita this weekend for the summit of the Cold War-era Non-Aligned Movement will see infrastructure from the island’s glory days, though they are now mostly empty.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Bolivian President Evo Morales and Ecuador President Rafael Correa are expected to attend the summit, which every year gathers top officials from countries that are not formally aligned with any major bloc.

From the outside, the site that will host the summit, the Hotel Venetur Margarita, still looks like it could be a five-star hotel in Miami or Aruba. It was once managed by Hilton International, and in 2009 housed the late Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe.

Not long after that, former President Hugo Chavez expropriated the hotel.

Last month, water cuts put the lobby bathrooms out of service. Workers placed jugs of water in the bathroom for guests to wash their hands.

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International tourists have begun to shun Venezuela in recent years as it has become one of the most violent countries in the world, and a complex currency system makes it difficult to change money.

This resort island was once mobbed with international tourists who loved the sparkling blue water, fine white sand and flawless sunny days. Now, swimming pools are empty, toilets don't flush and many hotels can't afford to offer meal service.

Crisis-wracked Venezuela gave the island community of 600,000 a last-minute cleanup to host leaders from the developing world for a summit of the Non-Aligned Movement. But all the attention can't hide the steep decline the island has suffered as the socialist country sinks into economic and social collapse.

One of the most maddening problems for locals is daily water cuts government critics blame on lack of infrastructure maintenance. Hotel manager Luis Munoz says he counts himself lucky to see running water every two weeks.

Munoz left his job as an engineer six years ago to open a colonial-style hotel on the beach here with 46 rooms. Until recently, he was doing well, catering to international tourists, well-do-to Venezuelans and groups of schoolchildren on government-sponsored trips.

Now, every day has become a struggle.

"The important thing is to get by; that's what we focus on," he said, standing in his hotel lobby without a guest in sight.

Overall hotel occupancy has fallen to 35 percent this year, according to the local tourist board. Flights into the island are down 50 percent. The crash has been devastating to people working in tourism, who are also grappling with the severe shortages and raging inflation plaguing the rest of the country.

Like most Venezuelans, Munoz, 42, passes hours each week waiting in lines to try to buy basic goods at subsidized prices.

The few guests who still book his rooms must pack in their own soap, towels and even toilet paper. He manages to keep his hotel's murky pool filled from a well. But food shortages have forced him to suspend meal service.

"How can you offer breakfast if you don't even know what you might find to eat for breakfast yourself?" he said.

Based on reporting by the Associated Press.

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