Venezuela’s Maduro brushes off celebrity chef scandal, attacks critics

Venezuelans: Salt Bae “We demand a public and immediate apology”

A Venezuelan resident in Miami, Samantha Capobianco protests in front of Salt Bae's Brickell restaurant, Nusr-Et Steakhouse, located at 999 Brickell Ave and calling to all Venezuelans and the community to attend the protest tomorrow noon.
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A Venezuelan resident in Miami, Samantha Capobianco protests in front of Salt Bae's Brickell restaurant, Nusr-Et Steakhouse, located at 999 Brickell Ave and calling to all Venezuelans and the community to attend the protest tomorrow noon.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro — fresh from a fundraising trip to China and a controversial meal in Turkey — took on his critics Tuesday, accusing the United States, Colombia and international media organizations of trying to topple his socialist administration, dismissing the head of the Organization of American States as “garbage” and saying he fears being assassinated if he attends the U.N. General Assembly later this month.

In the televised press conference, Maduro said his whirlwind trip to China had led to cooperation agreements that would strengthen the economy and help boost oil production. He said the trip left him “energized” with the knowledge that Venezuela — isolated and shunned in the region — has allies abroad.

“Beyond the scoundrels in the press, beyond the inquisition-like campaigns of the right-wing media, there are powers in the world that understand Venezuela,” he said.

But a quick layover on the trip also made him enemies at home.

At issue was Maduro’s brief stop in Turkey, where he dined at the restaurant of celebrity chef Nusret Gökçe, known as “Salt Bae.”

The images of Gökçe thrusting his hips as he cut thick slices of meat for Maduro and his wife, Cilia Flores, drew ire in Venezuela, where 30 percent say they often can only afford to eat once a day.

In three since-deleted Instagram video posts to his 15.7 million followers, Gökçe, who has a restaurant on Brickell in Miami, slices and flips sides of meat as Maduro laughs and smokes a cigar.

As the chef — clad in a black T-shirt and sunglasses — salted the meat with the signature flourish that earned him internet fame, someone off camera says, “Look how he salts it!” Gökçe later presented Maduro with a T-shirt of himself, draping it over the leader like a bib.

Maduro defended his decision to visit the expensive restaurant, saying the meal had been a gift and one more sign of how well respected Venezuela is abroad.

Looking into the camera, Maduro thanked Gökçe for the experience.

“Comrade,” he said. “I hope to be back in Istanbul soon so we can see each other again.”

A backlash quickly followed.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, called Maduro an “overweight dictator” and tweeted out the address and phone number of Gökçe’s Miami-based Nusr-Et steakhouse.

Gökçe “is not a guy who I disagree with on some domestic political issue,” Rubio told the Miami Herald on Tuesday. “This is someone who is celebrating a criminal. Nicolás Maduro is systematically starving the people of Venezuela. This guy’s here celebrating him as some sort of hero. I don’t know. I got pissed. Is that a good answer?”

Also angry: Venezuelans Samantha Capobianco and her husband, Leonardo, who protested outside Gökçe’s Brickell steakhouse Tuesday night, demanding an apology from the chef. Another protest is planned for noon Wednesday.

Maduro, meanwhile, used most of the press conference to skewer his enemies, particularly OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, who recently said that a military intervention to topple Maduro and resolve the humanitarian crisis shouldn’t be ruled out.

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“If you say that Venezuela needs to be invaded, then prepare your rifle,” Maduro dared his longtime critic, Almagro. “We’re waiting for you here. You’re garbage, garbage, garbage.”

Asked if would attend the U.N. General Assembly in New York later this month, Maduro said he would like to go but feared for his life. Last month, the government said a drone explosion near one of Maduro’s speeches in Caracas had been an assassination attempt.

“I’m evaluating [the U.N. trip] because you know that they have me in their sights to kill me,” he said. “I want to go to New York but I have to watch my security.”

While Maduro denounced Washington’s saber-rattling, he said he would welcome the opportunity to talk to President Donald Trump, or any U.S. official, in the interest of establishing “fluid and respectful” avenues of communication and cooperation. Caracas and Washington haven’t exchanged ambassadors since 2010.

“Despite our ideological and political differences, I would be ready and willing to do it,” he said of talks. “Any day, any hour, any time at all.”

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Maduro also used the event to blast the media and the region at large for focusing on the Venezuelan migration crisis. The United Nations says more than 1.6 million Venezuelans have fled the country since 2015, amid hyperinflation and chronic food and medicine shortages.

Downplaying the crisis, Maduro claimed that the migration numbers were overblown and that Venezuela’s neighbors, particularly Colombia, were trying to capitalize on the issue to raise funds and “rob the international community.”

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Colombia and others have been asking for a multilateral fund that might help them absorb Venezuelan migrants.

On Tuesday, Colombian President Iván Duque denied that his country has any “bellicose” intentions toward Venezuela.

“What we need is for the continent and the international community to see the magnitude of this humanitarian crisis and look for solutions to this humanitarian crisis,” he said.

Miami Herald food editor Carlos Frías in Miami, McClatchy reporter Alex Daugherty in Washington and Miami Herald intern Aisha Powell contributed to this report.