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Venezuela vows to send astronauts to the moon on Chinese spaceship

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Venezuela president Nicolás Maduro vowed to send “the first Venezuelan man or woman to the moon” on a Chinese spacecraft as part of a new strategic partnership between the two countries, he said Wednesday during a state visit to Beijing.

In their first meeting in years, Maduro and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to boost cooperation in several areas, including oil, trade, finance, mining — and space exploration, Maduro said.

“Very soon, Venezuelan youth will come to prepare as astronauts, here in Chinese schools,” Maduro said, touting a “new era” of collaboration between China and Venezuela.

After years of drifting away from Beijing, Maduro is strengthening ties with China as he seeks to revive Venezuela’s crumbling economy and oil industry. The visit comes as Venezuela is also in continued talks with the United States, which is exploring the possibility of lifting some oil sanctions against Venezuela as long as Maduro promises to hold free and fair presidential elections next year.

Maduro’s far-fetched pledge to send his citizens to the moon comes as Venezuelans continue to flee the political, economic and social crises in their country, adding to an exodus that has now surpassed 7 million, according to the U.N. refugee agency. The country still struggles with frequent power outages, insufficient running water, political instability and an inflation rate that reached 234 percent in 2022.

“Maduro is not able to feed his own people, much less get a Venezuelan on the moon,” said Geoff Ramsey, a senior fellow for the Atlantic Council. The lunar aspirations are a “little ridiculous,” he said, but come at a time when Maduro is “desperate to broadcast an image of himself as a successful statesman.”

China has become increasingly influential in Latin America in recent years, and has been an important lender to Venezuela since the years of socialist President Hugo Chávez. Venezuela is Latin America’s biggest borrower from China, with $60 billion worth of Chinese state loans. On Wednesday, China announced that it was upgrading its relationship to an “all-weather strategic partnership,” a label suggesting the ties between the two countries will hold regardless of changes in the external environment.

The announcement also comes as more countries are entering the global race to reach the moon. Japan launched a lunar mission this month in an attempt to become the fifth nation to land on the moon, just weeks after India successfully landed a robotic spacecraft near the south pole. The only other countries to reach Earth’s closest neighbor are the United States, the Soviet Union and China.

In May, China sent another three astronauts into space and made clear its ambitions to send a team to the moon before 2030, intensifying a Cold War-like space race with the United States. NASA is aiming to send American astronauts back on the moon by the end of 2025.

Venezuela recently became the first Latin American country to be invited to the International Lunar Research Station, a program led by China and Russia and focused on establishing a permanent lunar base.

Maduro has also expressed interest in joining BRICS — the economic grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — which will add six nations to its ranks next year.

The timing of the Beijing trip, amid ongoing talks with the U.S., is likely an attempt by Maduro to show the Americans he has other options, Ramsey said.

“But I’m not sure he got what he wanted,” Ramsey said. “The reality is that Venezuela owes over $15 billion to China at the moment, and the Chinese are looking to recover their investment before they get any deeper.”

In a diplomatic shift, the Biden administration has shown a willingness to deal directly with the Maduro government and granted Chevron a license to resume pumping oil in Venezuela, home to the world’s largest crude reserves. U.S. officials have said they would be willing to consider further easing of sanctions in exchange for legitimate elections.

The country is expected to hold presidential elections next year, but Maduro has not yet set a date for the vote. His government has also banned the leading opposition candidates from running in the race.

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