A Turkish-Venezuelan solidarity story
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was supposed to make a trip to Latin America following his visit to the Vatican on Feb. 5.
On Feb. 2, it was announced that the visit was postponed. The press did not pay attention to why the visit was organized in the first place and why it was cancelled later, but there is an interesting diplomatic story behind it.
The focus of the visit was actually Venezuela. Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela’s controversial leader, has been forging a close relationship with his Turkish counterpart.
The two are reported to have developed a good personal chemistry, and the distance separating the two countries has not prevented the two presidents from meeting frequently. Following their meeting in the Kazakh capital Astana last September, on the sidelines of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s (OIC) science and technology conference, Maduro paid an official visit to Ankara in the first week of October.
He was back in Turkey in December to participate in the OIC meeting initiated by Turkey following U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to move the American embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Maduro’s frequent meetings with Erdoğan and recurrent visits to Turkey came at a time when his leadership is contested domestically and his rule is increasingly accused of sliding toward authoritarianism, leading the country into isolation in the international arena.
Similar to polarization in Turkey, Venezuela is split between Chavistas, the name given to the followers of the socialist policies of the late President Hugo Chavez, and those who want to see an end to the 18 years in power of the United Socialist Party (PSUV). Supporters of Chavez’s successor Maduro praise the party for using Venezuela’s oil riches to reduce inequality and for pulling many Venezuelans out of poverty. But the opposition says the socialist party has eroded Venezuela’s democratic institutions and mismanaged its economy as it was hampered by falling oil prices. The government in turn accuses opposition leaders of serving for the United States.
In 2016, opposition lawmakers won a majority in the National Assembly. However, the Maduro government has taken steps since to consolidate the president’s power. Last July, Maduro held elections that many say was rigged. The vote replaced Venezuela’s opposition-run legislature with a national constituent assembly comprised entirely of government supporters.
This was followed in August by financial sanctions introduced by the United States while Trump made the unfortunate statement that among many options for Venezuela he was not going “to rule out a military option.”
Just like the United States, most members of the European Union do not recognize the national Constituent Assembly, and have also imposed sanctions on Venezuela.
But it’s not just Europe and the U.S. coming down on Maduro’s regime.
Leaders from Mexico, Peru, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica and Panama have all condemned the Venezuelan government’s practices.
Maduro is preparing to go to presidential elections set for the end of April while the country’s economic crisis has severely worsened in the recent months marked by severe food and medicine shortages.
It is against this backdrop that Maduro and Erdoğan have been talking to each other. Last January, Maduro sent a message to Ankara asking for the government’s support and assistance. Erdoğan responded immediately, instructing his staff to prepare an immediate visit to Venezuela. Then started the search to add other countries to the itinerary. Even though it was critical of Maduro, Brazil did not turn down Ankara’s wish to organize a visit in a matter of weeks. But it proved difficult to find a third country to include in the trip. Some countries were willing to welcome the Turkish delegation but it turned out that the president’s plane could not land on airports at such altitude. Finally, Uruguay also said yes to a visit but then informed it could not organize in a few weeks to host such a large and crowded delegation.
In the end, the visit was postponed due to logistical difficulties. But that does not change the fact that Erdoğan was ready to show solidarity with a country whose importance in terms of Turkey’s national interests is rather limited and which has strained relations with the U.S. and the EU, who are supposedly Turkey’s allies.