On July 12, 2020, The Intelligence Ledger began to track a Turkish registered Bombardier Global Express XRS as it entered Venezuelan airspace en route to Simon Bolivar International Airport. Given the current domestic unrest in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, it seemed odd to the investigator monitoring the flight that a private business jet with a price tag of $55,400,000.00 (USD) would travel several hundred miles from Istanbul, Turkey to Caracas, Venezuela on non-official business. Further digging yielded dozens more examples of both private and government flights between the two nations, both publicized and conducted in secret. In this short report, we examine how these flights are indicative of a growing relationship between an outcast from the western world and a NATO member state.
An Unexpected Relationship
In 1952, the Republic of Turkey joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The anti-communist alliance saw the strategic importance of Turkey, as the state controlled the straits that led into the Black Sea and sat on the Soviet Union’s soft underbelly. In the eyes of Turkey's political leadership, such an alliance could greatly benefit the developing country, with technology, funding, and military support from European and American partners potentially playing a critical role in their nation’s advancement.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the once strong relationship between the United States and Turkey has substantially worsened. With interests that no longer align, the US increasingly sees itself at odds with Turkey's domestic and foreign policy, and in some cases, on different sides of the battlefield. Today, Turkey is in direct defiance to US policy in one key area: Venezuela.
The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela sits at the northern end of South America, with access to both the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. The Latin American nation-state is unmistakably beautiful, with tourists once flocking to its borders to visit the largest lake in South America, the world’s highest waterfall, or the seemingly insurmountable Andes Mountains. Not only is Venezuela endowed with picturesque sights, but natural resources as well, with nearly $14.3 trillion worth of bauxite, coal, gold, iron ore, and crude oil burrowed deep below the surface. On paper, these two components should make Venezuela a successful and stable state, free from poverty and disorder. Such a notion, however, couldn’t be further from the truth.
Any semblance of order and wealth vanished in the once-thriving democracy when expansive social programs, massive government expenditures, and decreasing oil revenue collided with an authoritarian regime unwilling to make reforms. Today, the majority of Venezuelans live in shanty towns in abject poverty. Things as basic as medical gauzes, soap, toilet paper, or stable power supply, although common in developed states, are a privilege only enjoyed by the rich and powerful in Venezuela. Protests and riots are a common occurrence in the capital city, with average citizens unwilling to accept a dictatorship, and a spirited opposition government refusing to fade away.
The United States has taken a keen interest in the Venezuelan crisis. The Department of State has made clear it recognizes Interim President Juan Guaido and considers the Venezuelan National Assembly, which he currently leads, to be the only legitimate federal institution in the country. Turkey, on the other hand, has pursued closer ties with Nicolas Maduro, a democratically elected leader turned strongman and dictator.
To support Mr. Guaido, the United States Department of Treasury has been given authority to sanction organizations or individuals operating in the gold, oil, and defense sectors of the Venezuelan economy. Simply put, the United States is seeking to economically strangle Mr. Maduro out of power. This undertaking, however, has put the superpower at odds with its old ally.
The evidence of Turkish support for the regime in Caracas is compelling. In fact, Turkey has made no attempt to hide its growing partnership with Venezuela. When Juan Guaido initially declared Mr. Maduro's reign illegitimate, Recep Tayyip Erdogan was one of the few state leaders to personally call the embattled leaders and express his support, saying in part, "My brother Maduro! Stay strong, we are by your side."
Support has not been limited to verbal or diplomatic actions. Despite pressure from the west, Maduro has retained power through lethal and non-lethal aid from Cuba, Iran, Russia, China, and Turkey. Turkey has specifically focused on developing its gold and mining relationship with the rouge South American regime. It has made an art form of exchanging the mineral for food, importing $900 million worth of the shiny substance in 2019 alone. In return, Turkey supplies Venezuela with nearly 70% of its total food stocks.
Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the aid did not stop. On July 15, 2020, The Intelligence Ledger tracked the movement of an Airbus A400M Atlas registered to the Turkish Air Force from Ankara Etimesgut Airbase to Simon Bolivar International Airport. For several hours, the exact mission of the aircraft remained unknown. Then, a press release from National Defense Ministry of Turkey revealed that the aircraft carried, "medical supplies arranged by the Health Ministry upon the directives of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan..."
The United States has repeatedly warned Turkey that it may be punished with sanctions if it continues to develop a trade relationship with Venezuela. The growing power, however, has shrugged off the giant's warning. In 2018, Recep Erdogan traveled to Caracas to meet with Mr. Maduro, and pledged closer cooperation between the two parties. During a press conference, Erdoğan told reporters that he shares a special relationship with Maduro, "They sometimes call us the sultan or dictator. We share a common ground, but we do not pay attention to them." He went on to call Maduro a "brother." For his part, Maduro declared that Erdoğan was, "the leader of a new multipolar world."
What will be the impact of this defiance?
The impact of this growing rift between the United States and Turkey on Venezuela will have far reaching implications. Although it is formally associated with the west through NATO, it will increasingly develop relationships with the governments of anti-American states, such as Russia, Iran, and China. During his 2019 visit to Venezuela, Erdoğan summed up Turkey's permission clearly, "Are we going to seek permission from somewhere about whom we will be friends with and with whom we will trade?"