Turkish delight for Venezuela’s Maduro draws opponents’ fury

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Videos going viral of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro feasting on a steak prepared by a celebrity chef at a time many in his crisis-wracked nation are going hungry is drawing fury from opponents of the embattled socialist leader.

Maduro visited the famed Nusr-Et steakhouse in Istanbul when he stopped over briefly in Turkey on the way home from a trip to China to raise badly needed investment.

In the videos, he can be seen puffing on a cigar from a personalized box while he and first lady Cilia Flores watch owner Nusret Gokce, clad in dark aviator glasses and a bicep-busting T-shirt, rhythmically sway his hips while cutting into a juicy steak with a long knife.

Gokce, a worldwide restaurateur better known by his nickname Salt Bae, posted the videos on his Instagram account seen by some 16 million followers alongside photos of him serving clients like Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona and posing as Don Corleone from the “Godfather” movies.

He later deleted the images and a thank you post to Maduro.

But by that time the videos had already generated a maelstrom of criticism for Maduro, who was forced to put a lighter spin on the dining experience. Appearing on television Monday night, Maduro called the meal a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” and thanked Gokce for his hospitality, saying he hoped to see him soon in Caracas.

Opponents were less forgiving.

“While Venezuelans suffer and die of hunger, Nicolas Maduro and Cilia are enjoying themselves at one of the most expensive restaurants in the world,” said Julio Borges, the exiled former president of the opposition-controlled National Assembly.

Even Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, a fierce critic of Maduro, piled on, noting that Gokce also has a restaurant in Miami, home to the largest population of Venezuelan immigrants, most of them hostile to Maduro.

“I don’t know who this weirdo #Saltbae is, but the guy he is so proud to host is not the President of Venezuela. He is actually the overweight dictator of a nation where 30% of the people eat only once a day & infants are suffering from malnutrition,” Rubio said on Twitter.

A deep economic crisis marked by hyperinflation and widespread food shortages has destroyed Venezuelans’ earning power, with many surviving on less than a $1 a day. Nearly nine in 10 households are living in poverty, according to a 2017 survey by three leading universities.

Maduro is known for having a soft spot for Turkey. He has drawn closer to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the two have become political pariahs in Washington and fallen under U.S. sanctions. In July, during a previous visit to Istanbul, he dressed up as an Ottoman horseman while visiting the set of a popular Turkish TV series, “Resurrection: Ertugru,” which the Venezuelan leader said he watches back home.

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