Tension with Washington helps fuel Turkey-Venezuela alliance

FILE - In this Dec. 3, 2018 file photo, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan give a thumbs up as he embraces Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro during a ceremony at Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, Dec. 3, 2018. The personal relationship between the leaders is warm, partly forged by mutual support during domestic attempts to force them from power. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos, File) (Ariana Cubillos, Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

MEXICO CITY – At first glance, they seem like an odd couple.

Yet Turkey, a Mediterranean power that often chafes at what it calls Western interventionism, and Venezuela on the Caribbean, rich in oil and gold but in perpetual crisis and under U.S. sanctions, have a few things in common.

There is an economic relationship; the murkier aspects have attracted the scrutiny of the U.S. Treasury Department. There is solidarity in their anti-U.S. rhetoric, even if the United States is a key trading partner of Turkey. The personal relationship between the leaders of Venezuela and Turkey is warm, partly forged by mutual words of support during domestic attempts to force them from power.

The alliance was on display Tuesday when Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu visited Caracas to sign agreements and mark the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

“No sanctions, or blockade, or any type of situation will stop us from continuing to deepen our fundamental relationship and especially our economic and commercial relationship,” Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said in a joint news conference with Cavusoglu.

The Turkish diplomat, who visited the Dominican Republic and Haiti before arriving in Caracas, said his meetings in Venezuela focused on agriculture, construction, tourism, education and medical assistance. Despite the pandemic, the trade volume between Turkey and Venezuela tripled in the first six months of this year, compared to the same period in 2019, Cavusoglu said without giving a specific figure.

“We should keep going," the Turkish foreign minister said. He told Arreaza that Turkish Airlines intended to be the first carrier to restart flights to Caracas “when you open your airport."

Venezuela's main international airport closed to commercial passenger traffic because of the pandemic, but the number of airlines operating there had dwindled for years as the country descended into crisis. The economy deteriorated, political conflict and human rights abuses escalated, millions fled Venezuela and U.S. sanctions virtually paralyzed its flagship but already ailing industry, oil.

Along with Russia and China, Turkey is among a small number of lifelines for Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, who has fended off efforts by U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó to oust him. The U.S. has made it increasingly hard for those countries to do business with Venezuela, last week seizing the cargo of four tankers for allegedly transporting Iranian fuel to Venezuela. Iran said the U.S. had no right to confiscate the shipment in international waters.

The U.S. Treasury Department has also expressed concern about Venezuelan gold that it says was flown to Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.

From early 2018, as foreign exchange reserves dried up, Venezuela started selling gold to pay contracts, including some for a food distribution network that was exploited in a corruption scheme allegedly run by Maduro associates, the department said.

A Turkey-based company run by Alex Saab, a Colombian businessman linked to Maduro's circle, “purchased goods in Turkey on behalf of Venezuelan clients, marking up prices before being sold back to Venezuela," the department said last year.

Saab was arrested in June in Cape Verde while on his way to Iran and is fighting extradition to the U.S. Maduro’s government said the businessman was on a “humanitarian mission” to Iran to buy food and medical supplies.

Maduro, who peppers speeches with socialist rhetoric, says U.S. pressure amounts to a coup attempt. His personal relationship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took off when he quickly expressed solidarity after Erdogan survived a coup attempt by part of the Turkish military in 2016. Erdogan returned the favor when Guaidó, his movement now idled, was campaigning strongly against Maduro.

Still, Turkey is operating within U.S. constraints. Last year, the major Turkish bank Ziraat stopped working with Venezuela's central bank because of American sanctions.

“Hence, punitive measures by the United States that increase the cost of Turkey’s relations with Venezuela could potentially push Erdogan to scale back his support for Maduro," even as he continues to criticize U.S. policy on Venezuela, wrote Imdat Oner, a former Turkish diplomat. In an analysis for the Washington-based Wilson Center, he described the relationship between Turkey and Venezuela as “an alliance of convenience."