by Giorgio Cafiero
The violent unrest in Venezuela, which has pitted supporters of Nicolás Maduro’s government against the opposition, polarizes states in Latin America and beyond. Along with Canada and Israel, Washington’s Latin American allies—Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, Paraguay, and Peru—joined the United States in recognizing Juan Guaidó as the South American country’s legitimate president. Yet regionally, the government in Caracas has received support from Bolivia, Cuba, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Uruguay. Outside of Latin America, backing for Maduro has come from China, Iran, South Africa, Syria, and Russia.
Turkey has also stood by Maduro. On January 24, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Maduro on his return from Moscow, urging the Venezuelan leader to “stand tall” in the face of “anti-democratic developments” threatening his country. Ankara’s top diplomat Mevlut Cavusoglu, who visited Maduro in Caracas in September, accused Washington and some of its Latin American allies of violating Venezuela’s sovereignty by meddling in its domestic politics, warning of “chaos” resulting from more governments recognizing Guaidó.
Similarly, just as the Egyptian coup of 2013 fueled a major outcry from protestors in cities across Turkey, many Turks have been expressing solidarity with Maduro via social media. In fact, more tweets with the hashtag #WeAreMaduro have been in Turkish than Spanish.
The Turkish government’s firm stance on Venezuela’s crisis must be in part understood within the context of Turkey’s own history of coups and military rule. The ruling Justice and Development Party (APK)’s struggle to place control of the Turkish state in civilian, not military, hands has been hard fought over the last two decades. Throughout the periods of undemocratic rule that followed military interventions in national politics during the “traditional coups” in 1960, 1971, and 1980, and a “post-modern coup” in 1997, many Turkish political figures lived in fear that they, too, could meet a fate like that of former Prime Minister Adan Menderes, who received capital punishment following the military takeover of 1960. Turkish politicians and citizens—including both AKP supporters and opponents of Erdogan’s ruling party—resisted the failed coup of July 15, 2016, highlighting the extent to which Turks have fundamentally changed their views of military tutelage.
From Ankara’s perspective, the failure of the coup attempt in 2016 was a triumph for Turkey over Western imperialism, positioning Turkey as a model for civilianizing politics and standing against foreign powers trying to restrict the autonomy and independence of ascending powers. The strong support that Ankara gave Qatar in 2017 and Gabon in 2019 also underscores Turkey’s opposition to coup plots as a matter of principle. Speaking before a rally in Erzurum, Erdogan said:
We have never sided with coup plotters and we never will be on their side. They staged a coup against Mohammad Morsi in Egypt, we stood against that, we have never spoken to the putschists since then. Now they are staging another one in Venezuela. We stand against coups wherever they are across the world.
Similarly, Turkey has endorsed the Sudanese regime’s narrative that foreign agents and conspirators are behind that country’s current nationwide demonstrations.
Beyond the “anti-coupism” pillar of Turkish foreign policy, Ankara also wants to enhance its existing ties to Maduro’s government. Maduro, who regularly visits Turkey, attended Erdogan’s presidential inauguration. Given the strong criticism from fellow NATO members over Turkey’s presidential referendum, Erdogan truly appreciated Maduro’s attendance. In return, the Turkish president paid a visit to Caracas in December that factored heavily into Ankara’s diplomatic and economic push into Latin America, where Turkey has already deepened ties with Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Mexico, and Peru to increase its geo-economic position in the region. Erdogan was the first Turkish head of state to visit Venezuela.
Ankara’s strengthening relationship with Venezuela is also about snubbing the Trump administration and establishing strategic partnerships with states that actively resist the U.S.-led order. In Caracas, Erdogan declared, “Mr. Maduro’s exemplary attitude is very valuable at a time when enmity toward Islam has risen and Western countries are stoking hostility toward foreigners.” Turkey and Venezuela both believe that throughout recent history the United States has bullied their countries through coup plots and financial sanctions. U.S. financial sanctions against Turkey because of the Andrew Brunson case jolted the Turkish economy last year. Despite a recent U.S.-Turkish rapprochement, that experience is fresh in the minds of Turkey’s officials and citizens.
Much like Russia, Turkey has investments in Venezuela that shape Ankara’s stance on the ongoing wave of political turmoil. During the first nine months of last year, Turkey invested $900 million in Venezuelan gold, a resource that Caracas has grown increasingly reliant on for revenue since oil prices plummeted in 2014. Marshall Billingslea, U.S. assistant secretary for terrorist financing at the Treasury Department, has gone to Ankara to discuss whether these gold purchases are in violation of U.S. sanctions. Additionally, Turkish firms have maintained an important presence in the Venezuelan construction sector. Indeed, from the Venezuelan perspective, Turkish companies can help Venezuela develop the infrastructure to achieve a self-sufficient and oil-dependent economy.
Turkey’s support for Maduro is not only about Ankara standing by an ally. Turkey’s solidarity with Venezuela’s president sends a message to countries worldwide that Ankara stands by its friends in times of crises and also opposes foreign-backed coups as a matter of principle.
With Maduro’s regime maintaining control of state institutions, including the Venezuelan military, the United States seems undecided about what to do next to try to bring down the country’s president. Imposing a blockade that prevents Venezuela from exporting its oil, officially designating Venezuela a “state sponsor of terrorism,” and imposing more sanctions on the country are possible options that the Trump administration is considering. As the leadership in Washington applies greater pressure on Maduro and some of the states that still recognize his legitimacy, the crisis in Venezuela is becoming another source of tension in U.S.-Turkey ties.