Why you should care

Latin America needs new trade partners, and Turkey wants new friends. That’s spawning an unlikely trade relationship. 

In a small town in southern Colombia, just before lunch, 51-year-old Marina Ortiz soaks up a tangy soap opera called Me Robó Mi Vida. Dramatic violin music opens a scene. Nothing unusual, until you realize that the actors’ lips aren’t moving in sync with the words you hear. This is a Turkish soap that’s dubbed over. And the soaps are just one sign of Turkey becoming increasingly visible in this region.

Traditionally an ally of the West, Turkey has seen that support ebb away as its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has turned more and more authoritarian. In the Middle East, a key market for Turkish goods, tensions with Saudi Arabia over Iran and Qatar and the ongoing wars in Syria and Iraq have hit trade. But now Turkey is making forays into Latin American markets without the chatter that has accompanied Chinese investments in this part of the world.

Trade between Turkey and Latin America nearly tripled between 2006 and 2017, from $3.4 billion to $9.2 billion. Turkish Airlines turned its attention to the region in 2014 and today has connections to Panama City, Caracas, Havana, Bogotá, Sao Paolo and Buenos Aires. In January, it announced a new flight connecting to Mexico City and Cancun. Turkish soaps, like One Thousand and One Nights — based on The Arabian Nights — boom from televisions in Chile and Mexico.

With all these conflicts and problems in the Middle East, the question for Turkey becomes ‘Where can I sell my products?’

Imdat Oner, former Turkish diplomat

Turkish construction companies, including the sprawling conglomerate Yildirim, are erecting buildings in Venezuela and dredging ports in Ecuador. Venezuela’s dictator, Nicolas Maduro, and Erdogan are also brokering an opaque gold trade — Erdogan visited Caracas in December. A Turkish company, Sardes, imported $900 million in gold last year from Venezuela. Turkey’s also discussing free-trade agreements with Mexico and Colombia. 

 

For some countries in the region, the entry of Turkey offers yet another option beyond the U.S.-China binary, allowing them greater maneuvering room in negotiations with suitors. For others, like Venezuela, Turkey offers an escape route for trade where few others exist because of mounting sanctions. And for Turkey, Latin America represents a new market of 600 million people at a time it too desperately needs alternatives to its traditional economic partners.

“With all these conflicts and problems in the Middle East, the question for Turkey becomes ‘Where can I sell my products?’ ” says Imdat Oner, a former Turkish diplomat based in Caracas from 2014 to 2016 who is now a senior policy analyst at the Jack Gordon Institute at Florida International University.

Erdogan receiving a guard of honor in Caracas, next to Maduro in December 2018.

At the turn of the century, Turkey barely had an institutional foreign policy. Then, in 2006, Erdogan’s government laid out a plan to sow power in places like Southeast Asia and Africa. At the time, Latin America was listed as “a neglected region,” says Oner. That piqued the interest of Turkish merchants and businessmen, who crossed the Atlantic and began opening up shop. Turkey’s initial steps on the continent were aided by the support for South-South cooperation and trade pioneered by Brazil’s former president Lula da Silva and other leaders of emerging market economies.

The attraction isn’t unidirectional. When doors opened at the Pera Museum in Istanbul in 2010, the painting that drew most interest wasn’t a masterpiece by Rembrandt, Cézanne or Picasso. Instead, it was the comical image of a pudgy prostitute combing her hair. The famous Colombian painter Fernando Botero was the culprit — and the Turks loved it. “It was jam-packed. People were dying to see [Botero],” says Turkish academic Evren Çelik Wiltse, a political scientist at South Dakota State University.

It’s unclear how long the romance will last. Latin American nations are taking baby steps toward making human rights, women’s rights, democracy and respect for minorities’ “core values,” says Çelik Wiltse. Turkey, on the other hand, appears to be headed in the opposite direction. Some Turkish bureaucrats and cabinet ministers are known to refuse to shake hands with women on religious grounds, she adds. “Culturally, the current Turkish administration and Latin American political culture are rather incompatible,” says Çelik Wiltse. “The heavy religious tone of Turks kills many deals before they could start.”

A clip from the Turkish soap dubbed in Spanish, called Me Robó Mi Vida.

Then again, the Turks are no stranger to hashing out unlikely alliances in spite of clashing customs. During the 16th century, alliances often ran along religious and ideological lines. But hell-bent on squashing the Austrian Hapsburgs, the Ottoman Empire made a deal with King Francis I. Franco-Turkish forces put aside their differences, captured Nice, clobbered Corsica and defeated Hungary.

Turkey’s trade relations with Latin America could shake up the geopolitical chessboard again. Çelik Wiltse warns Latin America’s democracies about getting mixed up with Turkey, given its growing disregard for human rights even as it expands power in different parts of the world. She hopes the region’s own memories of strongmen leaders will make countries guard against too tight a partnership with Erdogan-led Turkey.

“It’s a honeymoon right now,” she says. “But it’s going to wear out … [and] if there’s an end to this relationship, then it’s over democracy and human rights.”

One flashpoint could be Venezuela, where Turkey’s participation in the gold trade is likely a way to whitewash gold tainted by human-rights violations by military and crime syndicates, according to Bram Ebus, a consultant with the International Crisis Group and an expert on Venezuelan gold mining. Oner, the former diplomat, says the gold trade seems “suspicious” and thinks Venezuela is using NATO-member Turkey to skirt U.S. sanctions. “Turkey-Venezuelan relations will have big repercussions for Washington-Ankara relations,” Oner argues. Most Latin American countries have opposed Maduro and have recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the interim president.

But the region needs new trade partners. Bilateral trade between the U.S. and Latin America has declined from $355 billion in 2012 to $262 billion in 2018 — a 26 percent drop — as part of the overall constriction of global trade. And countries like Venezuela are hungry for allies willing to buy its commodities. “Venezuela needs to turn the gold into cash,” says Oner.

Turkey wants friends too. The U.S., traditionally an ally, is troubled by Ankara’s unwillingness to support its sanctions against Iran and to respect America’s ally against ISIS — the YPG Kurdish militia. Turkey and Saudi Arabia are also locked in tensions over Qatar and Iran. In Venezuela, Ebus thinks, “Turkey is playing with fire” and is drawn to “alternative trade blocs despite any regard for human rights.”

Just as millions of people across Latin America now demand Turkish soaps as their entertainment. “We love these shows here in Colombia,” says Ortiz, the woman watching Me Robó Mi Vida. No matter what happens with Erdogan and Venezuela, Turkey’s influence has taken root in Latin America. And both sides appear set to protect that unlikely alliance — if only to make a quick buck.

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