On the 23rd of January, the President of the National Assembly of Venezuela, Juan Guaidó, before a massive crowd of supporters, assumed the duties of interim President of Venezuela, claiming that the incumbent President, Nicolas Maduro, was illegitimately elected. Mr Guaidó has already been recognised as the rightful President of Venezuela by over 50 nations, including the US, Canada and most European countries, along with the European Parliament.
Meanwhile, Mr Maduro, the incumbent President, whose administration has left the country, whose oil reserves are the largest in the world, in economic ruin, its currency with an inflation of over 800,000% and huge food shortages, creating the greatest refugee crisis ever recorded in the Americas, has denied entry to humanitarian aid from the UN and Amnesty International. His election was filled with all sorts of irregularities, with domestic and international observers deeming the results illegitimate. Mr Maduro succeeded Hugo Chávez in 2012, after his predecessor’s illness and death. Mr Chávez ruled Venezuela for 14 years after a coup-d’etat that installed a Socialist regime in power.
Perhaps not unsurprisingly, Mr Maduro’s supporters can be found in those countries most prone to oppose the West: China, Russia, Iran, Syria and Cuba.
But one country unexpectedly found defending Mr Maduro’s socialist regime was conservative, NATO and G20 member Turkey. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish President, was one of the few heads of state to call the Venezuelan dictator to express his support: “My brother, stand firm”, said Mr Erdogan, according to a spokesman.
Despite the strangeness it may cause at first, especially considering how muted the reaction was on neighbouring Iran, the United States’ usual rival in the region, where the response consisted mainly of a press release calling for a quick, peaceful and legal solution to the “disagreements and political problems in Venezuela” (this contrasts with the Turkish reaction, which led to an unwavering support in social media, with over half of all tweets marked with the hashtag #WeAreMaduro written in Turkish), the Venezuela-Turkey alliance has several reasons behind its existence.
First of all, and although Turkey is a member of NATO and has been trying for years to be a member of the EU, Mr Erdogan and his agenda have been categorised by many as populist, and defying the US falls right into his strongman narrative, painting Mr Erdogan as a sort of protector of the weak and oppressed, with the United States playing the role of the cruel, imperialistic oppressor. This improves his reputation at home; the Turkish people go to the ballots in March to vote in municipal elections – the outspoken support of the Venezuelan regime might give Mr Erdogan’s party the edge in these elections.
Supporting Mr Maduro also gives the Turkish President some support on the world stage: both are authoritarian leaders, whose countries have become more and more isolated, often criticised by the West in matters of human rights and democracy. The political situation in Venezuela is also similar, for many Turks, to the unrest felt by many during the Arab Spring or the failed coup against Mr Erdogan in 2016. They feel that the Venezuelan crisis is just another American coup. If the US are allowed to freely interfere wherever and whenever they want, then Mr Erdogan’s regime is itself threatened.
US sanctions on Turkey, which led to the collapse of the Turkish lira, and deteriorating relations fuel this resentment, which has pushed Turkey away from Washington and close to Moscow, a staunch supporter of the Venezuelan regime. In addition, the international criticisms and pressure against Venezuela are the same as the ones against Turkey, which leads them to believe that they face a similar situation and play a similar role in the world stage.
Several state visits have also occurred between the two countries as both leaders became close. Their relationship began when Mr Erdogan met Mr Maduro in 2016, during an energy conference in Istanbul, and got close after the attempted coup against the Turkish President. Mr Erdogan recently visited Caracas while returning from the G20 summit in Argentina in late 2018.
Their friendship is another feature of populist and authoritarian leaders, as they seek to stop relying on the institutions or bureaucracies, instead replacing them with personal, man-to-man relations.
But personal and political ties aren’t the only reasons behind Turkey and Venezuela’s growing friendship. Economic motives are also a huge part of the relationship.
Since last year, Turkey has began refining Venezuelan gold, previously processed in Switzerland, so as to dodge international sanctions. It is now the largest importer of non-monetary gold from the Latin American nation. Over the last five years, trade between Turkey and Venezuela has doubled, with the former having imported $900 million in precious metals, announcing joint ventures in fossil fuels and gold exploration.
This falls within more general Turkish policies to improve trade, as Mr Erdogan’s Administration seeks to diversify its trading partners beyond the Middle-East by possibly expanding into South America, using Venezuela as a foothold. While other carriers are shutting or diverting their routes, Turkish Airlines started to fly to Caracas, via Havana, in 2017, clearly signalling Turkey’s warming relations with the Latin American country.
However, the Venezuela-Turkey gold trade has raised concerns about the proceeds of the gold, with some US officials claiming that some of it might be sent to Iran, in flagrant violation of sanctions. Turkey has already been used as a way to divert capital into Iran, namely in the 2000s, when a senior official at a Turkish state bank was found guilty and sentenced to jail in a criminal case in the US that personally implicated Mr Erdogan.
Some have said the Turkey and Venezuela’s alliance marks their entrance into a global league of autocracies, like Russia, China and Iran, that seek to oppose the Western democracies.
For now, however, the situation hinges on the outcome of the Venezuelan crisis. If Mr Maduro’s regime manages to survive, then Turkey will win an ally, stepping even closer to this Axis of Autocracies. But if the Venezuelan people achieve their freedom, this writer believes that the West might still be able to pull Turkey back into its orbit. Experts say that Turkey’s actual support to Mr Maduro will stop at words, as it lacks the means and the power to influence the events in Venezuela, unlike its Latin American neighbours. As one commentator put it: “It’s easy to declare he supports Maduro, and that’s all.”
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