Turkiye in Venezuela: A Sanctioned Partnership

The Maarif Foundation of Turkish international schools now has three centers in Venezuela to teach the Turkish language, history and culture. InternationalIndiaAfricaLongreadAnkara is pumping the Caribbean country’s gold, coal and wood industries with private investment, flexing its muscle while scoffing at the White House’s blockade.Elena wasn’t sure she recognized the man whose face was sprawled across the endoscopy consultancy of her local hospital. It certainly wasn’t any of the usual figures Venezuela venerates like former President Hugo Chavez or independence leader Simon Bolivar. This guy was lighter-skinned with a different, easterly complexion.She was actually looking at one of the many posters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the Ana Teresa de Jesus Ponce Infant Maternity Hospital in Venezuela’s La Guaira state, one of two Venezuelan hospitals refurbished by the Turkish government in 2020.While Ankara revamping hospitals 10,000 kilometers away may seem odd, the symbolic gesture is emblematic of the new “brotherly” alliance putting Turkiye firmly on the Latin American map, enrapturing economists and – presumably – infuriating Washington, while at the same time helping Venezuela solve its number one dilemma: how to get around US sanctions.

"There is mutual benefit (…) and interest [between Turkiye and Latin American countries] in developing the economies of Latin America. It is a more complete partnership than that between Latin America and China or Russia."

Javier Farje – Latin America expert and journalist

Trade, Diplomacy and Solidarity

This new trend in Turkiye-Venezuela relations shifted into top gear in 2017-18, with net trade increasing by 466% from 2019; Turkish imports from Caracas expanding by 523% since 2017; and Venezuelan imports from Ankara up 860% over the same time period.Infogram on Turkiye-Venezuela trade dataInfogram on Turkiye-Venezuela trade dataBoth countries have established consulates in each other’s second cities; direct flights run on a daily basis; and Erdogan and his Venezuelan counterpart Nicolás Maduro have made a formidable six presidential visits in the same number of years.Infogram on Turkiye-Venezuela presidential visitsInfogram on Turkiye-Venezuela presidential visitsAnkara has also helped Caracas cover its recession-hit fiscal deficit by pledging to housing, healthcare and schooling, with three Maarif international schools now running in Caracas. It also become a major player in supplying products to Venezuela’s subsidized CLAP food scheme, which the government claims reaches 7.5 m families.© Photo : Anadolu AgencyTurkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C) is greeted in Caracas, Venezuela, in 2019. 1/8Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C) is greeted in Caracas, Venezuela, in 2019. © Photo : VTVcanal8A screenshot of a VTV TV report following the Turkish-led refurbishment of the Ana Teresa de Jesus Ponce Infant Maternity Hospital in Venezuela’s La Guaira state showing a banner of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 2/8A screenshot of a VTV TV report following the Turkish-led refurbishment of the Ana Teresa de Jesus Ponce Infant Maternity Hospital in Venezuela’s La Guaira state showing a banner of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. © Photo : Getty ImagesPeople hold Turkish and Venezuelan flags in Ankara in 2019. 3/8People hold Turkish and Venezuelan flags in Ankara in 2019. © Photo : @IAIM_VETurkish Airlines have upped their flights to seven a week to Caracas’ Maiquetia Airport pictured here, providing a key bridge to Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa for the isolated country. 4/8Turkish Airlines have upped their flights to seven a week to Caracas’ Maiquetia Airport pictured here, providing a key bridge to Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa for the isolated country. © Photo : ElPitazoTurkish food in Venezuela CLAP box5/8Turkish food in Venezuela CLAP box© Photo : @int.maarifschoolsvenezuelaChildren at the Venezuelan Turca Maarif international schools in Caracas show their solidarity with the victims of the 2023 earthquake in Turkiye and Syria.6/8Children at the Venezuelan Turca Maarif international schools in Caracas show their solidarity with the victims of the 2023 earthquake in Turkiye and Syria.© Photo : Agencia AnadoluDuring Venezuela’s recession, Turkiye donated medicine and medical equipment despite the threat of US sanctions, such as this lot which arrived in July 2020. (TIKA – Handout Agencia Anadolu) 7/8During Venezuela’s recession, Turkiye donated medicine and medical equipment despite the threat of US sanctions, such as this lot which arrived in July 2020. (TIKA – Handout Agencia Anadolu) © Photo : Twitter / @PCivil_VeFifty Venezuelan search and rescue experts board a state-run Conviasa plane from Caracas to Istanbul to assist in the post-earthquake operations in Turkiye in 2023.8/8Fifty Venezuelan search and rescue experts board a state-run Conviasa plane from Caracas to Istanbul to assist in the post-earthquake operations in Turkiye in 2023.1/8Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C) is greeted in Caracas, Venezuela, in 2019. 2/8A screenshot of a VTV TV report following the Turkish-led refurbishment of the Ana Teresa de Jesus Ponce Infant Maternity Hospital in Venezuela’s La Guaira state showing a banner of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 3/8People hold Turkish and Venezuelan flags in Ankara in 2019. 4/8Turkish Airlines have upped their flights to seven a week to Caracas’ Maiquetia Airport pictured here, providing a key bridge to Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa for the isolated country. 5/8Turkish food in Venezuela CLAP box6/8Children at the Venezuelan Turca Maarif international schools in Caracas show their solidarity with the victims of the 2023 earthquake in Turkiye and Syria.7/8During Venezuela’s recession, Turkiye donated medicine and medical equipment despite the threat of US sanctions, such as this lot which arrived in July 2020. (TIKA – Handout Agencia Anadolu) 8/8Fifty Venezuelan search and rescue experts board a state-run Conviasa plane from Caracas to Istanbul to assist in the post-earthquake operations in Turkiye in 2023.Caracas has not lagged behind, being one of the first countries to denounce the 2016 coup d’état attempt against Erdogan and sending rescuers to assist in post-earthquake efforts this year.“We are greatly pleasured to receive the president of Venezuela, my beloved friend Mr. Maduro and his delegation in Ankara. We will strengthen even further the legal infrastructure of our relations by signing memoranda of understanding…Our economies offer new opportunities for cooperation and diverse opportunities for mutual investment. We increased our commercial volume almost 3 times in 2021, to $850 million. Our objective is $3 billion… TIKA [Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency] has carried out close to 20 projects in Venezuela, mainly in areas such as education, agriculture and health. Turkish Airlines acts as a bridge organizing 7 flights a week on the Istanbul-Caracas route…We have taken in 76 young Venezuelans in our country as part of the apprenticeships of Turkiye. We have activated the 3rd school of the Turca Maarif foundation in Caracas. Soon, the cultural center of our Yunus Emre Institute will reactive its work in Caracas… We have similar points of view about many topics in the international arena. Once again I shared with [the] president that we are against the unilateral sanctions against Venezuela and especially emphasized our principled position towards these unilateral sanctions…Venezuela was one of the first countries to support our government during the betrayal of the coup d’état of July 15. We have also been on the side of the Venezuelan people in difficult and turbulent times. Turkiye will support Venezuela [with] friendship as it has done until now”.

‘Hubs’ and Raw Material Extraction

However, the public ‘bromance’ between Erdogan and Maduro rests on solid economic foundations, as Turkiye’s privileged presence on the UN’s Economic Commission of Latin American Countries (CEPAL) reveals.

“Turkiye and Venezuela are both positioned as ‘hub’ countries (…) both will support each other and will continue to grow together using their own economic, productive and commercial capacities.”

The timing of this coming-together was no coincidence.In 2019, Washington morphed its 2017-era sanction package – principally against Venezuela’s oil and banking industry – into a fully-fledged illegal blockade, with Brussels, London and a range of other western allies quickly following suit. The measures exacerbated Caracas’ economic troubles and brought about an estimated 80% gross domestic production (GDP) contraction between 2014 and 2021. The impact on poverty levels, social programs and wages has been almost-unfathomable.As part of the blockade, any individual or firm trading with Caracas or investing in Venezuela were ̶ and still are ̶ liable to see their US-based assets confiscated by the US’ Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), essentially pulling the rug from Venezuela’s foreign direct investment (FDI). In short – investing in Venezuela became a high-risk game in which only those with zero exposure or enough muscle to intimidate the OFAC could play.As Chairman of the Turkiye-Venezuela Business Council Galip Ilter explained: “A lot of private companies and ship owners are quite reluctant to work in any business related with Venezuela. This makes the shipping cost higher, consequently, Venezuelan products, even if they are not under sanctions, become less competitive,” he explained. However, “Turkiye does not recognize the embargo,” he clarified.The heavily sanctioned Caracas government was forced to take dramatic steps to attract FDI, driving monthly wages down to $5, preventing trade union organizing, gifting juicy tax breaks, allowing widespread dollarization and marking out special economic zones to create mouth-watering conditions for foreign investors.Turkish firms responded to the call, with investment in Venezuela shooting up to $761 million in 2021. Private investors jumped at the chance to buy up cheap public assets in mixed agreements with the Venezuelan state in order to satisfy Ankara’s increasing demand for raw materials for its industrial output, so explained former BBC journalist and Latin America expert Javier Farje in an exclusive interview.In 2018, Turkish firm Glenmore Proje Insaat set up a mixed enterprise with Venezuela’s state-run Carbones de Zulia on a 45%-55% ratio, respectively, to mine coal.Equally that year, Ankara-based Marilyns Proje Yatirimset up a similar deal with the state-run Minerven Corporation to create the Binational Turkiye-Venezuela Mining Firm (Mibiturven) to extract gold.In February 2019, Glenmore Proje Insaat also formed a 49-51% mixed company with state-run Maderas de Orinoco to create wood extractors Mavetur. Before the revamp, Maderas de Orinoco was estimated to employ a 2000-strong workforce and had a yearly output of 600,000 ha. of Caribbean Pine from the continent’s largest human-sewn timber plantation in Venezuela’s Monagas state.Apart from wood, gold and carbon, Turkiye has also imported huge amounts of Venezuelan iron, particularly scrap iron, over the last three years to feed “the largest scrap iron-importing” industry “in the world,” Ilter explained in an exclusive interview on the issue. “Over the past five years, the quantity of scrap available in Venezuela has grown significantly, which has meant that Turkish imports reached $717m in 2022,” he continued.According to Ilter, this extractionist investment and trade is mostly private sector, clearly working hand-in-hand with the Turkish state, and is based around “prime materials for industry or which are consumed in Turkiye,” such as gold for the country’s flourishing jewelry market, not unlike traditional Global North-South trade relationships.This perspective is shared by Farje: “Latin America sells Turkiye the raw materials it needs for its industrial output, because Turkiye is a very diverse economy, and Latin America benefits with the technology and with the advice and help Turkiye can give.”

Did Someone Say Sanctions?

However, apart from braving Washington’s wrath to invest in resource-rich Venezuela, Turkiye has also assisted Caracas in dodging sanctions in different ways.In July 2018, an estimated $779 million in Venezuelan gold was diverted from its traditional route to Switzerland for refining and certification after authorities raised concerns that it would be seized under the blockade. Turkiye was only too glad to assist, receiving and processing the gold.At the time, Venezuela’s Ecological Mining Minister Victor Cano told Reuters: “We will do it [the gold certification] in allied countries because imagine if we sent the gold to Switzerland and then we were told that it is to stay there because of sanctions.”Likewise, Turkish exporters – particularly the firm Ciftci – seized at the chance to poke fun at Washington and make a buck at the same time, filling Venezuela’s once-empty supermarkets and CLAP program with flour, pasta, wheat and soap, not to mention supply shops with car parts, construction materials and medicine. In 2018, it was estimated that a whopping 69% of the basic CLAP products originated from Turkiye.However, according to investigative journalists at Armando.info, the majority of these products were not produced in Turkiye but rather imported from elsewhere by unscrupulous traders only to be shipped out to Caracas, presumably with another sizeable mark-up. Former Venezuelan MP Americo De Grazia even went so far as to claim that “There is not a single Turk in the firm” linked with Colombian-Venezuelan businessman Saab. For his part, however, Ilter refuted these criticisms, claiming that they “can’t be taken seriously.”Rather, Ilter stressed that Turkish efforts to help Venezuela dig its way out of its economic hole have “not been helped” by sanctions, despite “no investment in Venezuela falling under the scope of the embargo.”With Venezuela’s massively-contracted GDP starting to grow again in 2022, albeit minutely, Ilter stressed that “dollarization” and a shift to “non-oil based products” in the Venezuela economy, coupled with a drop in inflation and a “considerable reduction” in crime, have “stabilized” the once-volatile economy. All this, he argued, has “converted Venezuela into a global point on the map for investment.” Five-dollar-a-month labor presumably helps too.

Powerhousing It

With Washington’s consensus still dominating global politics and trade, Turkiye’s option to join global heavyweights Russia, India and China in defying the US’ self-declared blockade and come to Caracas’ aid sends a clear message to the world: a newly self-confident Turkiye will follow an independent trade policy.According to Farje, the reinvigorated relationship between Turkiye and Venezuela “reduces the dependency [on] trade with the US [and as such] neutralizes the US.”“Erdogan has lost total interest in Europe, (…) so Turkiye is looking somewhere else and Latin America is the perfect partner for this new trend [which looks to] not try to competewith the US but create alliances to becomea power,” he continued. One can only imagine the stern looks thrown at Turkiye at NATO and G20 summits for such outrageous behavior.Yet, with Turkish exports and imports to and from Latin America still only making up a meager 1.4 and 2.2% of its total global trade, there seems to be plenty of room for the bromance to bloom further.However, many variables remain. Increasing local rejection of Maduro’s new business-orientated economic model and FDI-attracting conditions casts doubt on the long-term role of foreign capital, while Erdogan has the small matter of reelection to worry about this year.For his part, however, Farje is convinced that the eastern country is in Venezuela to stay, arguing that “Turkiye will give a more positive contribution to Latin America” than any of its predecessors.

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