Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan paid an official visit to Venezuela this week following his attendance at the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The visit came at a time when his Venezuelan counterpart Nicolas Maduro continues to face widespread international condemnation for leading his country into chaos.
Aside from the fact that Erdogan’s visit was the first-ever visit by a Turkish head of state to Venezuela, Erdogan’s visit bluntly demonstrates Turkey’s determination to strengthen its bilateral relations with the embattled Maduro regime despite rising international sanctions and pressure. The Turkish President offered firm support for Venezuelan leader Maduro during his visit to Caracas, saying his “friend” was facing “manipulative attacks from certain countries and acts of sabotage from economic assassins.”
The governments of the two countries explained the closer relations as a win-win in terms of diplomacy and economic relations. However, it seems Maduro and Erdogan are seeking more than that.
Erdogan may be hoping to use Turkey’s outreach to Venezuela, which is under sanctions from the U.S. and the EU, as another point of leverage in his negotiations with the Western allies.
At the same time, the embattled President Maduro hopes to benefit from Turkey’s growing interest to stave off growing isolation efforts and sanctions and, at the same time, be recognized by significant portions of the international community.
The courtship of the autocrats
The diplomatic ties between Turkey and Venezuela go back almost 60 years, but until recently amounted to little more than the routine exchange of diplomats. Yet the failed coup attempt in Turkey in 2016 was a turning point in the bilateral relations between Ankara and Caracas. Since the failed attempt, Maduro has become a vocal admirer of Erdogan, and soon thereafter the two countries began to deepen their diplomatic relations. In the last two years, the two countries have created a cozy financial, political and military partnership.
High-level official visits between the two countries have skyrocketed. In the last two years, President Maduro has visited Turkey four times. Turkish officials have frequently paid visits to Venezuela in 2018, culminating in Erdogan’s visit this week.
Trade has been flourishing between the two countries as more Turkish investment begins to flow into the Venezuelan market. The trade volume between the two countries has increased from $155 million last year to $970 million in the first seven months of the current year alone. It is expected to surpass $2 billion in the coming years.
Moreover, this year Venezuela’s central bank moved its gold operations from Switzerland to Turkey in the wake of a wave of international sanctions. Turkey has become the largest importer of gold from Venezuela. Recent reports show that Venezuela has exported $779 million of gold (20.15 tons) to Turkey in 2018 with no signs of slowing down.
Ankara’s eagerness to advance its ties with Venezuela comes at a time when Washington has exerted more diplomatic pressure to isolate the Maduro regime. Since the beginning of his tenure, President Trump has taken a very aggressive posture toward Venezuela, leading not-so-subtle efforts to remove Maduro from power. The Trump administration even hinted at military intervention against Venezuela to unseat the unpopular South American leader. More recently, Trump’s National Security Adviser, John Bolton, included Venezuela in the “troika of tyranny” along with Cuba and Nicaragua.
While the U.S. administration continues to take aim at the Maduro regime, the fact that Turkey, a longstanding U.S. ally, is in the midst of a rapid cozying up to Venezuela has become a nerve-racking issue for Washington.
During his visit to Caracas, the Turkish president criticized the U.S. sanctions on Venezuela. Erdogan also answered a question in the press conference by hinting at the United States: “Are we going to seek permission from somewhere about who we will be friends with and with whom we will trade?”
Turkey is fully cognizant of Washington’s concerns with the Maduro regime and its allies. Furthermore, Erdogan is aware that the rapprochement between Ankara and Caracas has its limits. On the surface, there is little rationale for Erdogan to maintain his enthusiasm for the isolated Maduro regime.
Nevertheless, Turkey’s recent engagement with Venezuela amid U.S. isolation efforts falls in line with Erdogan’s long-standing tactic of using other issues as political bargaining chips in Ankara’s bilateral relations with Washington. Erdogan has aimed to increase his leverage over the U.S. before in the cases of the imprisonment of Andrew Brunson (with the purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missile system) and the death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi (who Saudi agents murdered in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul). Similarly, President Erdogan likely calculated that he can use his recent flirtation with the Maduro regime as another point of leverage over the Trump administration.
Meanwhile, on the Venezuelan side, deepening ties with Turkey seems to be a more critical issue. In the wake of the increased sanctions on Venezuela’s financial sector, the Venezuelan economy needs a lifeline. Masses of Venezuelan refugees continue to flee to neighboring countries as the situation in the country grows increasingly dire. Around the globe, few countries overtly support the Venezuelan government, Russia and China most prominent among them. In this respect, the relationship with Erdogan gives Maduro a much-needed lifeline that might help his regime remain in power for the foreseeable future. In fact, Turkey’s support for Maduro gives it not only an economic lifeline but also a chance to showcase its international ties. A presidential-level visit from a NATO member and longstanding U.S. ally gives the embattled and isolated Maduro much-needed symbolic support at a time of growing international sanctions and pressure against his regime.
With this in mind, President Erdogan will likely deepen his ties with the embattled Maduro regime in the near future to gain more concessions from the Trump administration, while, out of necessity more than anything else, the Maduro government will also increase its investment and trade in Turkey.
It remains to be seen whether Erdogan will receive enough concessions from the Trump administration to make worthwhile his efforts to strengthen Turkey’s relationship with Venezuela. But Erdogan’s growing enthusiasm toward Venezuela may also come at the expense of Turkey’s relations with its traditional partners in the West. For Venezuela, the question seems to be much more critical: How long will Erdogan be able to provide an important lifeline to the Venezuelan regime as Turkey flails away in a deepening economic crisis of its own.