This month, U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order sanctioning gold exports from Venezuela. As a way to punish the government in Caracas, the move made some sense. Venezuela has one of the largest gold reserves in the world. And as the country’s oil production has plummeted, President Nicolás Maduro has turned to mining and selling more for badly need income. Yet the decision was also curious, since Venezuelans involved in exporting the natural resource are likely to have already been hit with earlier rounds of sanctions.
In fact, the real targets of Trump’s order might be Venezuela’s partners in the gold trade: China, Russia, and especially Turkey. According to Marshall Billingslea, the assistant secretary for terrorist financing at the U.S. Treasury Department, Venezuela sent Turkey at least 21 metric tons of gold in recent months, which makes up a majority of its total exports of the metal.
To be sure, ties between the two countries go beyond gold. Turkey has lately become one of Maduro’s favorite destinations. He has patronized the famous “salt bae” restaurant in Istanbul and has attended conferences there on everything from energy to religion. He has also called Erdogan “a friend of Venezuela and leader of the new multi-polar world.”
In return, Erdogan has declared that “Turkey won’t leave Maduro alone.” He made plans to visit Caracas in February, although he had to cancel at the last minute. And after an attempt on Maduro’s life in August, Erdogan, who had survived a failed coup two years earlier, made sure that Turkey was one of the first countries to condemn the attack. Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin even tweeted, “Stay strong mi amigo,” along with a photo of himself and Maduro.
Meanwhile, since 2016, when Turkish Airlines opened a flight from Istanbul to Caracas via Havana, officials from both countries have crisscrossed the globe to sign five agreements on trade, agriculture, tourism, aviation, and security in 2017 and several more on education and culture in 2018.
It makes sense that the two countries want to deepen their relationship. For Venezuela, friendly ties with Turkey are a way to avoid total isolation. And for Turkey, association with Venezuela is a way to highlight discontent with the U.S.-led world order.
From a U.S. perspective, though, the relationship spells trouble.
In a panel interview at the Brookings Institution, the Iran expert Suzanne Maloney compared the relationship between Venezuela and Turkey to that between Iran and Turkey in the 2000s. Primarily through the gold trade, Turkey helped Iran evade sanctions. Today, she explained, if Turkey is refining Venezuelan gold, it risks “undermining the entire [economic] system” once more. And certainly, if the sanctions on Venezuela’s gold sector are any guide, Trump must want to head off the growing friendship as well.
Still, the relationship between Venezuela and Turkey faces some problems. For all their cooperation on trade, the two countries have had a hard time working together on other issues. Maduro has made several promises to shut down two Caracas-based schools run by Gulenists—the religious order thought to be behind the 2016 attempted coup against Erdogan—but has yet to do so. There’s also the problem that Maduro supports Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, Erdogan’s sworn enemy. Caracas has even turned down Turkish humanitarian aid on the grounds that it doesn’t believe that Venezuela is facing a humanitarian crisis.
Beyond that, there is little institutional groundwork for turning personal friendliness between Erdogan and Maduro into a broader alliance. Distance, language barriers, and unfamiliarity make cooperation difficult at the lower levels of government.
At this point, then, Turkish-Venezuelan ties may be less a substantial threat to the international order than an annoyance. And rather than spend a lot of energy attempting to distance Erdogan and Maduro, the West might try to use the relationship as an opportunity to bring Venezuela back into the fold. After all, Ankara is one of the few powers that can speak to both Caracas and other capitals in the region.
Turkey has very good relations with Colombia, for example, which has received more than a million Venezuelan refugees since 2016. A high-level delegation from the country even visited Turkey to see how it manages its 3.5 million Syrian refugees. According to Colombia’s former foreign minister, that visit helped shape his nation’s response to Venezuelan refugees. Turkey’s good relations with both sides may be useful for establishing a trilateral commission on the subject.
Erdogan might serve as a bridge in other ways, too—for example, in a possible rapprochement between the Venezuelan opposition and the Maduro regime. If Erdogan enters that game, it will be similar to his initial efforts during the Syrian civil war, when he first attempted to protect Assad and urged him to take a soft approach to protesters. When Assad failed to do so, Erdogan turned on him and joined the West in backing the rebels fighting him. In Venezuela, too, Erdogan might be persuaded to draw a hard line around regime brutality.
With Erdogan considering a visit to Venezuela at the end of November as part of a trip to attend a G-20 meeting in Argentina, the United States should encourage Turkey to keep up communication with Venezuela as a way to slowly bring the country around to other negotiations. If that doesn’t work, of course, Trump can go back to the sanctions drawing board.
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