Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro vowed to send “the first Venezuelan man or woman to the moon” in a Chinese spacecraft as part of a new strategic partnership between the two countries, he said Wednesday during a state visit to Beijing.
“Very soon, Venezuelan youth will come to prepare as astronauts, here in Chinese schools,” Maduro said, as part of 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 help reviving Venezuela’s crumbling economy and oil industry. Venezuela is also in talks with the United States exploring the possibility of lifting some U.S. sanctions on Venezuela’s oil sector in exchange for Maduro’s promise to hold free and fair presidential elections next year.
Maduro’s pledge to send citizens to the moon comes as Venezuelans continue to flee the country on foot. Political, economic and social crises have fueled an exodus that has surpassed 7 million, according to the United Nations 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 with the Atlantic Council. The lunar aspirations are a “little ridiculous,” he said, but Maduro is “desperate to broadcast an image of himself as a successful statesman.”
China, which has worked for years to expand its influence in Latin America, has been an important lender to Venezuela since Hugo Chávez founded the socialist state. Venezuela is China’s biggest borrower in Latin America with $60 billion in state loans. On Wednesday, Beijing announced that it was upgrading its relationship to an “all-weather strategic partnership.”
More countries are entering a 21st century space race. Japan launched a mission this month in an attempt to become the fifth nation to land on the moon, weeks after India successfully landed a robotic spacecraft near its south pole. The United States remains the only country to send men to the moon; the Soviet Union and China have landed unmanned probes.
In May, China sent three more astronauts into space and made clear its ambitions to send a team to the moon before 2030. NASA is aiming to return American astronauts back to 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 base on the moon.
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.
Ramsey said the timing of the Beijing trip, amid ongoing talks with the United States, is likely an attempt by Maduro to show the Americans he has options.
“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.”
The United States under President Donald Trump severed diplomatic ties with Venezuela in 2019, after Maduro claimed victory in an election seen by Washington and other governments as fraudulent. The following year, a U.S. federal court indicted Maduro and 14 top officials with drug trafficking, corruption and narcoterrorism charges.
In a diplomatic shift, the Biden administration has shown a willingness to deal directly with the Maduro government. Officials have granted Chevron a license to resume pumping oil in Venezuela, home to the world’s largest crude reserves, and have said they would consider easing sanctions further 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 banned the leading opposition candidates from running in the race.