Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro says that new investments from China will help his country dramatically boost its oil production, doubling down on financing from the Asian nation to turn around its crashing economy.
Already a major economic partner, China has agreed to invest US$5 billion more in Venezuela, Maduro said following a recent trip to Beijing, adding that the money would help it nearly double its oil exports to China.
"We are taking the first steps into a new economic era," he said. "We are on track to have a new economy, and the agreements with China will strengthen it."
A once-wealthy oil nation, Venezuela is gripped by a historic crisis deeper than the Great Depression in the United States. Venezuelans struggle to afford scarce food and medicine, many going abroad in search of a better life. Venezuela's inflation this year could top one million percent, economists predict.
After two decades of socialist rule and mismanagement, Venezuela's oil production of 1.2 million barrels a day is a third of what it was two decades ago before the late president Hugo Chávez launched the socialist revolution.
Maduro says under the deal, Venezuela will increase production and the daily export of oil to China to one million barrels a day. However, China is taking a strong role in its new agreements. Over the last decade China has given Venezuela US$65 billion in loans, cash and investment. Venezuela owes more than US$20 billion.
The head of the National Petroleum Corporation of China will soon travel to Venezuela to finalise plans on increasing oil exports.
Russ Dallen, a Miami-based partner at brokerage Caracas Capital Markets, said the influx of money appears to be investments China will control.
"The Chinese are reluctant to throw good money after bad," Dallen said. "They do want to get paid back. The only way they can get paid back is to get Venezuela's production back up."
Venezuela also agreed to sell 9.9 percent of shares of the joint venture Sinovensa, giving a Chinese oil company a 49 percent stake. The sale will expand exploitation of gas in Venezuela, the president said.
Maduro also recently launched sweeping economic reforms aimed at rescuing the economy that include a creating new currency, boosting the minimum wage more than 3,000 percent and raising taxes.
Economist Asdrubal Oliveros of Caracas-based firm Econalitica said he doubts that Venezuela can reach the aggressive goal to boost oil exports to China to one million barrels a day given problems faced by the state corporation PDVSA.
"Increased production I see as quite limited," Oliveros said. "The Chinese companies alone have neither the muscle nor the size to prop up production."
Impoverished Venezuelans reacted with fury this week after videos of Maduro gorging on succulent pieces of meat in a restaurant owned by a celebrity Turkish chef went viral.
"This is once in a lifetime," enthuses Maduro with his wife Cilia Flores as Nusret Gökçe, a social media star chef who goes by the name 'Salt Bae,' performs his signature theatrical preparation of slices of meat at one of his restaurants in Istanbul.
Back home, Venezuelans face food shortages while a group of the country's top universities conducted a study that found 87 percent of the population were living in poverty in 2017 and 60 percent of people had lost an average of 11 kilogrammes (24 pounds) due to a diet that was lacking in protein, one of the primary nutrients contained in meat.
"Chavismo is asking China to borrow money because you can't pay your debts and then going to luxury restaurants," wrote social media expert Luis Carlos Díaz on Twitter in a broadside at Maduro's left-wing populist politics .
A main course in Gökçe's restaurant costs between US$70 and US$250 – equivalent to between two and eight months salary in Venezuela on the minimum wage.
Celebrities including Portuguese football icon Cristiano Ronaldo and Hollywood star Leonardo Di Caprio have eaten at Gökçe's restaurant.
"We shared a meal in a famous restaurant. I send a greeting from here to Nusret, who looked after us personally. We chatted, enjoyed our time with him ... he loves Venezuela," said Maduro on a television and radio broadcast in Venezuela after returning to Caracas on Monday following his trip to China, which included a stopover in Istanbul where he was invited to dine with Turkish authorities.
Gökçe had published videos of Maduro's visit on his social media accounts thanking Maduro but soon deleted them from Instagram after he was inundated with thousands of angry messages.
In one of the videos, Maduro is seen sucking on a thick cigar taken from a box bearing his name engraved on a golden label, while receiving a T-shirt emblazoned with Gökçe's face.
During the visit, former bus-driver Maduro, who likes to style himself as the "worker president," was surrounded by armed Turkish guards.
"Eating meat and smoking cigars... with the dollars that he refuses to use to buy medicines and food: WORKER PRESIDENT," said former government loyalist Nicmer Evans, now a leader of the opposition Frente Amplio.