The Middle Eastern origins of support for Venezuela’s Maduro

As Venezuela’s crises unfolds Iran, Turkey, the Palestinians and Russia stand behind Maduro as US, Canada and other countries support interim President Guaido.

Venezuela's Presidente Nicolas Maduro wipes the sweat from his forehead during a session of the National Constituent Assembly at Palacio Federal Legislativo in Caracas, Venezuela August 10, 2017 (photo credit: CARLOS GARCIA RAWLINS/ REUTERS)
Venezuela's Presidente Nicolas Maduro wipes the sweat from his forehead during a session of the National Constituent Assembly at Palacio Federal Legislativo in Caracas, Venezuela August 10, 2017
Support for competing sides in Venezuela’s latest crisis has divided the world – and has its origins in differences over Middle Eastern politics. On January 23, the US recognized Juan Guaidó as the interim President of Venezuela, even as the regime of President Nicolas Maduro continues to hold the mantle of power in Caracas.
Turkey has offered some of the strongest support for Maduro yet. “Maduro brother, stand tall, Turkey stands with you,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Maduro in a recent phone call.
Guaidó declared himself president as massive crowds converged in Venezuela’s capital to protest Maduro’s rule on Wednesday. The US has taken the lead in supporting Guaidó, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that Washington will conduct relations with the new president and no longer recognizes Maduro, who has been president since 2013, when he assumed power from Hugo Chazev, the former coup leader turned strongman who came to power in the 2002 elections.
Maduro’s supporters claim he was reelected in May 2018, but the opposition and many countries did not recognize the outcome of those elections, paving the way for the current crisis. Iran, Syria, Turkey and Russia all recognized the 2018 results.
Support for Maduro has divided the world and South America, where Colombia, Paraguay, Brazil, Argentina, Chile and others have recognized Guaidó, while Mexico, Cuba and Bolivia have stood with Maduro. Russia and China have condemned the US decision to interfere in Venezuelan politics.
However, in the Middle East, the Venezuela divide is interesting because Iran, Turkey and Russia – who have grown increasingly close over the Syrian conflict – all support Maduro.
IRAN’S FOREIGN ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi backed Maduro and condemned “foreign meddling in the country’s domestic affairs,” insinuating that a coup was under way. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that the US and Latin American countries were intervening in the internal affairs of Venezuela.
Under Chavez, Venezuela has become a key ally of regimes in the Middle East that oppose the US and Israel, such as Iran. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was so close to Chavez that he got in trouble in his own media for hugging Chavez’s mother and reportedly saying in 2013 that Chavez would be resurrected alongside Jesus.
 In 2014, Maduro attacked Israel and Jews in a march “against genocide,” claiming that “the Jews that live in our lands” should be the first to condemn Israel. He claimed that Israel doesn’t kill Palestinians in error, but intentionally murders them.
Unsurprisingly, Maduro’s statements have been given a place in Turkish nationalist media, such as the newspaper Yeni Safak, which put up a speech by Maduro in 2017 titled “Jews, stop murderous Israel.” This dovetails with extremist statements by the far Right in Turkey, which has accused Israel of genocide against the Palestinians and frequently bashes Israel for its actions.
The Palestinian Authority has supported Maduro in the current crisis, which comes as the US is withdrawing funding from the Palestinians and the PA refuses to meet with the US on any peace deals.
The alliance between Turkey and Venezuela has also strengthened recently. Turkey’s presidential adviser Ibrahim Kalin tweeted the hashtag “we are Maduro.” Ankara has positioned itself as the most vocal critic of US policy on Venezuela at the same time that it has been in talks with Washington about its withdrawal from Syria.
THE SYRIAN conflict and the increasingly close relations between Turkey, Russia and Iran clearly overshadow part of the support for Venezuela’s current leadership. Iran sees Venezuela as one of those countries in the axis of resistance against US meddling and “imperialism.” Similarly, Moscow sees Caracas as a key ally in South America. According to reports, Russia has been seeking to build a military base or gain access to a landing strip in Venezuela.
Whereas Turkey and Iran are close to the country’s current leadership, the opposition in Venezuela is supported by countries that tend to be the closest to Israel. For instance, Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro, recently hosted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and has been openly supportive of Israel. Colombia is also a close ally of Israel and Argentinian President Mauricio Macri has warmed relations since his election as well.
This plays into the divide in Latin America between those parties that position themselves further Left. They see the Cuban Castro regime as an inspiration and are more critical of America, while other parties are associated more with the Center and Right. In foreign policy terms, this has played out as closer relations with varying camps in the Middle East. For instance, the previous Argentinian government was closer to Iran.
Economics plays a role as well. Ankara has grown closer to Caracas alongside economic deals that were signed in December. These relate to oil deals and gold refinement in Turkey. US economic pressure has pushed Venezuela closer to Turkey, which condemned sanctions on the South American nation.
Caracas is also an export partner for Ankara with working deals worth around $5 billion, according to Al-Jazeera. Maduro visited Turkey in September 2018 and feasted at a restaurant with celebrity chef Salt Bae, leading to criticism back home among Venezuelans who have been impacted by a failing economy.
IT IS SURPRISING that Venezuela has become such a litmus test in the Middle East, and that Venezuelan leaders have sought to project their foreign policy into a region so far from home. However, the country appears to understand the Middle East through the lens of the global far Left and Islamist politics, viewing the US as an “imperial” power seeking “regime change.” Therefore, it is looking to ally with the “victims” of US foreign policy, whether those are the Palestinians or the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria.
During the Syrian conflict, the Assad regime played on claims that it was the victim of a new round of “imperialism,” calling for the global Left to stand by it. In the end, it only convinced the hard Left to do so. At the same time, regimes such as Iran, traditional enemy of the US, sought out Venezuela as a partner. Russia – because of its historic ties to Cuba from the Cold War – saw Venezuela as an asset because of its close ties to Cuba.
Therefore, the warm Turkish-Venezuela relations appear in the context of Turkey’s increasing drift into a worldview that is closer to Russia and Iran and more critical of or hostile to the US. This comes even as Ankara is seeking out billion dollar defense deals with the US and looking to work with the Trump administration on Syria.
How Turkey will be able to balance that while being one of the most vocal supporters of Maduro remains to be seen. The crisis in Venezuela may lead locals to question why their leader has spent so much time cultivating friends in the Middle East, while ignoring economic hardships and protests at home.