Ankara, Turkey – When Venezuela’s industry chief Tareck El Aissami swapped the Caribbean sun for the wintry skies of central Anatolia on Wednesday, he was greeted by bouquet-bearing dignitaries eager to play a role in Turkey’s growing gold trade with the Latin American state.
His arrival in the city of Corum was the latest development in a burgeoning gold market that has raised eyebrows among the international community, which largely views Venezuela as a pariah state.
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El Aissami, President Nicolas Maduro’s minister of industries and national production, spent the afternoon at a gold refining plant in the city’s industrial zone before leaving by private jet amid tight security.
Since last year, Turkey has been refining and certifying Venezuelan gold after Maduro switched operations from Switzerland over concerns that further sanctions against his country could see it impounded.
Venezuela recently turned to gold in a bid to shore up its depleted foreign currency reserves as the economy implodes and international sanctions restrict the government’s ability to raise foreign currency.
Maduro, who was sworn in for a second term a week ago, has become increasingly isolated as the West and Venezuela’s neighbours have initiated measures over allegations of corruption, economic mismanagement, election-rigging and human rights abuses during his reign.
On Tuesday, it was reported that US President Donald Trump is considering recognising the head of the opposition-run National Assembly as Venezuela’s legitimate leader. Washington is also said to be mulling a full oil embargo and even military intervention.
In this climate, Turkey has emerged as a vital ally for Venezuela on the world stage.
Despite the lack of any obvious bond between Maduro’s socialist regime and the conservative, free-market administration of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the two nations have forged close ties.
Imdat Oner, a former Turkish diplomat who was stationed in Caracas from 2014 to 2016, says Turkish interests in oil-rich Venezuela are largely commercial.
“Aiming to diversify its partners beyond its traditional sphere of influence, the Erdogan government is seeking to achieve an economic foothold in Latin America,” he said. “Venezuela has been a convenient partner for Turkey to realize its goal to expand the export market in Latin America.”
Turkey has become the largest importer of non-monetary gold from Venezuela, receiving $900 million in gold in the first nine months of 2018. Overall, bilateral trade has leapt from $804m over a five-year period from 2013, to $892m between January and May last year, according to the Turkish Statistical Institute.
Last year, the two countries announced joint ventures in coal and gold exploration and started talks about Turkish investment in Venezuela’s beleaguered oil industry, which controls the world’s largest proven reserves.
In the first visit by a Turkish head of state to Venezuela, Erdogan last month oversaw the signing of commercial deals reportedly worth $5.1bn.
However, ties between the nations are further reinforced by political considerations. Like Maduro, Erdogan has often found himself subjected to Western criticism regarding human rights violations and undemocratic practices.
Over the summer, Turkey was targeted by US sanctions that contributed to a collapse of the Turkish lira and there are a number of other enduring disputes. Although a long-standing American ally, deteriorating relations have seen Turkey move closer to Russia, a firm backer of the Venezuelan regime.
“Turkey feels that both countries face the same international pressure – either military coup attempts or unjustly naming both countries’ leaders as dictators,” said Mehmet Ozkan, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Policy in Washington.
Ozkan, who until last year was the Colombia-based regional director for TIKA, the Turkish aid agency, added: “Most of the criticisms of the international system coming from Venezuela are similar to those of Turkey. Ankara considers that they both share a similar destiny as they face similar threats, criticisms and issues in global politics.”
The personal relationship between Erdogan and Maduro seems to underpin the growing bilateral trade that encompasses finance, mining, energy, agriculture and defence.
Referring to Maduro as his “friend” during his December trip, Erdogan railed against sanctions imposed on Venezuela.
“Political problems cannot be resolved by punishing an entire nation,” Erdogan said, before condemning “manipulative attacks from certain countries and acts of sabotage from economic assassins.”
Two months earlier, Maduro had visited Istanbul, a stopover that provoked outrage when footage emerged of him dining at a celebrity steakhouse as ordinary Venezuelans starved. It was his fourth visit to Turkey in a year.
Relations between Ankara and Caracas warmed in the wake of the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. When Maduro was targeted by a drone in an apparent assassination attempt last August, Erdogan was quick to call and offer his support.
According to Oner, Erdogan found his “soulmate” in Maduro. “Their like-minded attitudes and personalised diplomacy have paved the way for an increased rapprochement,” he said.
“These populist and authoritarian leaders are seeking to develop man-to-man relations, rather than relying on institutions, bureaucracies or rules.”
Many commentators claim Turkey and Venezuela have become members of an alliance of authoritarian states, including Russia, China and Iran, that have emerged to challenge the West.
In an interview with Russia’s Sputnik news agency last July, Dogu Perincek, leader of Turkey’s leftist-nationalist Patriotic Party, spoke of a “solidarity in opposition” to US control.
“The world has formed a front against American hegemony and pressure whose geography extends from Venezuela to China and Turkey is a key player here,” he said.
Oner said the relationship could also be viewed in the context of Turkish brinkmanship with Washington, where Erdogan calculates that his “flirtation” with the Maduro government acts as leverage.
“With this in mind, President Erdogan will likely deepen his ties with the embattled Maduro regime in the near future to gain more concessions from the Trump administration,” he said.
In another sign of warming ties, Turkish Airlines initiated flights to Caracas, via Havana, in 2017 as other carriers shut down their routes.
Turkish food products also make up the bulk of aid packages sold to Venezuelans at a heavy discount – a system that critics say Maduro’s regime uses to reinforce loyalty from its citizens.
However, it is the gold trade with Turkey that has caught the eye, with US officials claiming some of the proceeds may be being funnelled to Iran, another Maduro backer, in breach of sanctions.
“We are tracking large purchases of gold in Turkey these days and we’re trying to understand why that’s happening,” Marshall Billingslea, assistant US treasury secretary for terrorist financing, said during a visit to Ankara in July.
The gold trade between Turkey and Venezuela has been likened to the Turkey-Iran exchange in the 2000s when Ankara helped evade US sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
Iran sanctions-busting later resulted in a highly embarrassing criminal case in the US that saw a senior official at a Turkish state bank jailed. During the trial, Erdogan was personally implicated in the illicit trade.
Despite the quantities of gold being shipped to Turkey, there are no signs in official trade figures of the refined product being returned to Venezuela, leading to suggestions that a barter system has been set up that includes food aid going from Turkey to Venezuela.
Oner also pointed to an increase in the levels of gold going from Turkey to the United Arab Emirates. “These unprecedented spikes raise the question of whether the gold coming from Venezuela is sent to the UAE because of sanctions,” Oner said.
The lack of transparency means the global community will remain suspicious of the trade, he added.
A Turkish diplomatic source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Turkey opposed “resorting to unilateral sanctions in international relations” and maintained that all trade transactions with Venezuela were “transparent and conducted in accordance with national and international law.”
Meanwhile, Maduro’s man in Corum was optimistic about the future of his country’s friendship with Turkey.
“There will be no doubt that 2019 will be the most productive year for relations between Turkey and Venezuela,” El Aissami told a news conference after his visit.