By Franz von Bergen | Fox News Latino
CARACAS, Venezuela – Despite Venezuela’s growing economic crisis, President Nicolás Maduro spared no expense to celebrate Fidel Castro’s 90th birthday last Saturday.
According to opposition lawmaker Carlos Berrizbeitia, Maduro spent at least $400,000 traveling to Havana with a group of folk music artists to put on a concert in honor of Castro, the political mentor of late President Hugo Chávez and a close ally of Venezuela.
The event was transmitted live on two Venezuelan public TV channels and hosted by Winston Vallenilla, a popular TV personality who entered politics in 2013 when he supported Maduro and was later appointed president of Venezuela’s largest public TV station.
“Maduro used the presidential airplane, which requires around $25,000 to operate per hour,” Berrizbeitia told Fox News Latino. “The trip to Cuba is two hours long, so he spent around $100,000 to go and come back.”
A second plane made the trip to Cuba, transporting musicians, technicians, journalists, government ministers and military personnel to protect the president.
“$185,000 had to be used for that and to pay hotel says and food. The rest of the money was spent in the satellite transmission of the concert and to pay the artists and technicians,” Berrizbeitia said.
The lawmaker, a member of the National Assembly’s Controllership Commission, based his calculation on the national budget, which estimated $124 million for government travels to other countries this year.
“The trip to Cuba could have cost more, but we don’t know exactly because of the government’s secrecy over public expenditures,” Berrizbeitia said.
He said in total about 80 people made the trip from Venezuela to Cuba.
First lady Cilia Flores, Minister of Culture Freddy Ñañez and actor Roberto Messuti, another supporter of Maduro’s, also made the trip.
The president and his wife stayed two days, but the majority of the group spent more than three days in Havana.
Since taking power in 2013, Maduro has traveled to Cuba 16 times, according to an FNL count. If each of those presidential flights costs $100,000, as Berrizbeitia calculates, then the government has spent, at absolute minimum, $1.6 million taking trips to Cuba.
Last April, during the Summit of Americas in Cuba, Maduro’s government paid for 1,500 people to travel to Cuba.
At the time, a government loyalist told FNL that the trip cost more than $600,000 – without taking into account how much Maduro spent on lodging and air travel.
Since oil prices plunged in 2015, Venezuela hasn’t had the funds to import basic goods such as food and medicine, what has created acute shortages. Most of the country has gone hungry.
“There is just no justification for this kind of spending during an economic crisis like this one,” Berrizbeitia told FNL. “Senior officials should set an example of austerity and use financial resources to help the people.”
Maduro has traveled to 35 different countries in four different continents during his three years in office, according to a count by FNL. He has spent 134 days, more than four months in total, outside of Venezuela.
Berrizbeitia said that Maduro´s most expensive trip was to China in January 2015. The expense was more than $1 million on that occasion.
“He traveled with his whole family,” the lawmaker said, “and they all stayed in expensive hotels.”
Franz von Bergen is a freelancer reporter living in Caracas.