Juan Guaido, the leader of Venezuela’s National Assembly, declared himself interim president yesterday, a move quickly recognized by the U.S., Canada, the Organization of American States, and eleven Latin American countries. Along with the leaders of Russia, China, Iran, and Cuba, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan rushed to declare support for incumbent Venezuelan strongman Nicolas Maduro. Erdogan’s decision puts Ankara and Washington on a crash course on yet another front.
In his call to Maduro, Erdogan reportedly said, “My brother Maduro! Stand tall, we stand by you!” Turkey’s presidential spokesperson tweeted Erdogan’s comments with the hashtag, “#WeAreMADURO,” which then became a trending topic in Turkey.
The Turkish president’s demonstration of solidarity with Maduro should not come as a surprise. Under Erdogan’s rule, Turkey has increasingly acted in coordination with the VIRTU countries, an acronymic club of authoritarian regimes that includes Venezuela, Iran, Russia, and Turkey. Ankara and Caracas recently signed several deals to boost economic relations, which include building a mosque in Caracas and opening a Turkish Airlines base in Venezuela. The growing gold trade between Venezuela and Turkey, however, raises the most eyebrows, given Erdogan’s track record of subverting Washington’s sanctions on Iran, initially through a gas-for-gold scheme in 2012 and 2013.
Last July, Caracas announced that its Central Bank had started refining gold in Turkey following a wave of U.S. sanctions on Venezuela. Venezuela’s mining minister explained the choice of Turkey for refining by saying, “It’s being done by allied countries because imagine (what would happen) if we sent gold to Switzerland and we are told that it has to stay there because of sanctions.” Although there was no record of gold trade between Caracas and Ankara in 2017, Turkey became the largest importer of Venezuela’s non-monetary gold, receiving 900 million dollars’ worth in the first nine months of 2018.
Last October, Marshall Billingslea, the U.S. Treasury’s assistant secretary for terrorist financing, expressed his concerns that Venezuela had shipped gold to Turkey “without approval from the opposition-controlled National Assembly.” He added that the gold “is being removed from the country without any of the customary safeguards that would ensure the funds are accounted for and properly catalogued as belonging to the Venezuelan people.” Although there is no record of any of the refined gold making its way back to Venezuela, there are reports that “subsidized food boxes that millions of Venezuelan families rely on for survival have begun to come with Turkish-made products.” U.S. officials further warned, “some of the gold may be making its way to Iran in violation of sanctions on the Islamic Republic.”
The Trump administration provided Turkey a special exemption on November 5 to allow it to continue purchasing oil from Iran despite the reintroduction of sanctions. This exemption came despite Erdogan’s vow to defy sanctions once again. The Turkish president’s support for Maduro is yet another sign that he will undermine U.S. efforts to sanction and pressure authoritarian adversaries around the globe. As long as Washington, which is preparing to extend Turkey’s Iran waiver after it expires in May, turns a blind eye to Erdogan’s defiance, he will continue to see inaction as a license for further transgression.
Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). Follow him on Twitter @aykan_erdemir.