Turkey and Venezuela don't have many things in common but they do understand realpolitik.
Embattled Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro travelled to Turkey on October 6 to meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The two leaders had exceedingly nice things to say about each other after the meeting. Maduro, referring to Turkey, declared for all to hear that “a new power is being born.” Erdogan replied by saying he opposed foreign interventions in Latin America (an obvious rhetorical shot at the United States) and hoped to visit Caracas “as soon as possible.”
Ideologically, these presidents have little in common. Maduro is the heir to Hugo Chavez’s socialist Bolivarian Revolution, which is fast coming apart at the seams. Erdogan leads the AKP – an economically liberal and socially conservative political party that has transformed domestic Turkish politics. But geopolitics, as usual, is apathetic towards ideology. Hard interests reign supreme.
Venezuela’s interests in Turkey are understandable. Maduro’s regime, increasingly crippled by US sanctions and general economic mismanagement, is desperate for money, food, and political support. The first stop on Maduro’s trip was Russia, which is supplying Caracas with all three. But Turkey, with its rising inflation rate and gross foreign debt over half of GDP, can’t offer much in the way of cash right now.
Still, there are some things that Turkey can do for Venezuela. Turkey can import more Venezuelan oil (Turkish imports from Venezuela, though small in absolute terms, are up 62 percent year-on-year through August). Turkey exported almost $17 billion-worth of agricultural products last year, so it has food aplenty to offer Venezuela.
Erdogan's meeting with Maduro gives the regime in Caracas a much-needed injection of prestige. Maduro can claim, after all, despite the most recent round of US sanctions, that he was still welcomed warmly by two leaders of the G20 countries.
The trickier question to answer is why Turkey should want to do these things for Venezuela. Turkey has been trying to make inroads in Latin America for years now, and choosing sides in Venezuela will ingratiate Turkey to some, but isolate Turkey from others. Maduro can’t help Turkey deal with the Kurdish Regional Government’s (KRG) recent vote for independence, nor can it help Turkey manage a situation in Syria that is necessitating yet more Turkish military intervention. Nor can he support Maduro to solve the strategic differences between Turkey and Russia or Turkey and Iran.
Ultimately, Turkey’s support of Venezuela is about one thing: the United States. US-Turkish relations have been deteriorating for years, and Donald Trump’s first nine months in office have done little to staunch the bleeding. The US decision to begin arming Syrian Kurds in May was just the latest and most serious in a series of misunderstandings and disagreements between the two sides.
The situation apparently got so bad that it necessitated US Secretary of Defense James Mattis to travel to Turkey himself for a marathon day of meetings with Turkish officials in August. Mattis’ visit was successful in that it seemed to smooth over recent tensions, at least temporarily. Turkey has been more assertive in Syria since Mattis visited, suggesting that the US and Turkey came to an understanding on how best the fight against Daesh should proceed. Mattis coming out publicly against the KRG’s independence referendum and pledging American support for Turkey in fighting the PKK didn’t hurt either.
But even if Turkey and the US are seeing more eye-to-eye at the tactical level, the fact remains that the US decided to provide military support for a group that, from Ankara’s perspective, poses an existential threat. That is not a slight the Turkish government can simply forget. Turkey asked the US not to jeopardize Turkish security. The US ignored Turkey’s request. That's fine, and doesn’t mean the US and Turkey can’t still cooperate on some issues — but it's also not something that can be swept under the rug. The recent tit-for-tat between the US and Turkey — that’s resulted in both countries suspending the processing of non-immigrant visa — is emblematic of the mini-escalations surrounding the bigger sticking points in the relationship.
By providing support for the current regime in Venezuela, Turkey is in effect making it clear that US actions will have consequences. It’s the same reason ultimately that Russia and China have also cultivated close relationships with Venezuela over the years. The character of the regime in Caracas matters little to Moscow, or Beijing, or Ankara, so long as Caracas is at odds with Washington and is distracting the US, however slightly, from other issues in the world on which it would rather be focused.
The Maduro-Erdogan meeting was preceded by a meeting of the Venezuelan and Turkish foreign ministers. Turkey and Venezuela signed four agreements after that meeting about increasing cooperation in fields like economy, food, tourism, and security. Turkey also reportedly plans to open a Turkish Cultural Centre in Caracas.
These types of diplomatic niceties are, generally speaking, meaningless. Maduro and Erdogan met in Istanbul in October 2016 and reached similar agreements without much tangible effect. And, as he did on Friday, Erdogan told Maduro last year that he hoped to visit Caracas soon. Erdogan, however, has no need to visit Caracas. He just needs the US to know that Turkey is an independent actor. So like Russia and China, Turkey will help keep the Maduro regime on life-support, not because it helps Turkey directly, but because of the message it sends to the US.
As for Maduro, beggars can’t be choosers. He’ll take whatever help he can get, and hope that come next year, Turkey will remain at odds with the US so that Ankara will continue to be solicitous about the fate of the Bolivarian Revolution.
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