Turkey’s Ambitious Overture to Latin America

April 30, 2022
by İmdat Öner, published on 30 April 2022
Turkey’s Ambitious Overture to Latin America

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu embarked on a six-nation tour of Latin America this week, including Uruguay, Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, and Venezuela. This is his fourth official visit to the region in the last five years. Over the past few years, the  visits paid by high-level Turkish officials to South America are far ahead of the visits of any other non-regional country, including China and Russia.

With this outstanding diplomatic activism, Ankara is increasingly shoring up ties with new partners in the region. Yet, what is striking is that the Turkish government keeps pushing to expand its footprint further in distant geographies at a time when the Turkish economy is crumbling. It is legitimate to raise the question of how far Turkey can sustain its “diplomatic overstretch” abroad despite its shrinking economy.

Turkey's opening to Latin America

In recent years, Turkey has left a strategic impact on Latin America far beyond its limited resources and capabilities. Almost two decades ago, Ankara had very little interest in the region in large part due to long geographical distance, the relatively high costs of doing business in Latin America, and the region’s relative insignificance in Turkey’s strategic and geopolitical considerations. Therefore, Turkish diplomatic posts in Latin America had long served the career diplomats close to their retirement, given that Turkey’s engagements were episodic and low-level. Arguably, the Turkish diplomats in the region were then merely tasked with holding back any calls for “recognizing” the Armenian genocide in the legislation of host countries.

After long decades of cordial but limited interactions, Turkey has decided to develop its relations with the region. From the 2000s onward, the Turkish Foreign Ministry launched an out-reach policy toward Latin America in line with Turkey’s changing foreign policy orientation. Over the past two decades, Turkey has steadily strengthened its profile by opening new diplomatic missions, boosting trade volumes, and flourishing its soft power.

Turkey’s growing presence in Latin America has become more evident with the increasing number of its diplomatic representatives. More concretely, the number of embassies in the region has increased from 6 to 17 in the last two decades. In addition, Turkey opened up several cultural institutions (the Yunus Emre Institute and the Turkish Maarif Foundation) and Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) offices in the region. So far, Turkey has implemented more than 400 projects under the TIKA directory in the continent, visibly more than any other foreign assistance agency.

Institutionally, Turkey has also grown its influence by joining as an observer country in regional organizations, including the Organization of American States (OAS), the Central American Integration System (SICA), the Association of Caribbean States (ACS), the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and MERCOSUR.

Such an outstanding diplomatic push into Latin America yielded significant increases in trade volume. In the last decade, Turkish businesses have gradually established a presence in Latin America, betting on the region as a source of mutual economic gain. Turkish imports jumped from $1 billion in 2002 to $15 billion in 2021. Further, Turkey is seeking to sign a free trade agreement with the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR), the leading regional trade block. Even so, Turkey is still far from being one of Latin America’s chief trading partners as its trade volume accounts for a fraction of the region’s total trade. 

Meanwhile, the Turkish government also seeks to secure some arms deals in this region. In his recent visit to Turkey, the President of El Salvador showed his country’s willingness to cooperate with Turkey in defense industries. Similarly, Brazil’s Foreign Minister noted that they seek to strengthen institutional infrastructure in the defense industry with Turkey. Turkish defense industry companies increasingly appeared to show up in the leading defense fairs in Latin America. Yet, it's worth mentioning that the Latin American defense market is quite competitive in which top arms suppliers, the US, China, and Russia, fiercely compete. In fact, there is not much room for Turkey in this area.

With respect to people-to-people diplomacy, Turkey achieved a strong foothold in Latin America. As Turkey's home-grown TV series have found an enthusiastic audience on the continent, Turkey’s soft power has taken root immensely. Turkish “telenovelas” topped the list of most-watched shows on Latin American TVs. Turkish producers note that a third of show revenue from foreign sales comes from South America; more than any other region. With the increasing awareness and enthusiasm, tourist numbers from Latin America to Turkey have notably increased over the last few years. Increasing flights and destinations of Turkish Airlines have also helped enhance Turkey’s soft power capacity in the region.

Turkey's growing engagement with Latin America was also beneficial for the countries across the region seeking to diversify their export and import markets. Since the early 2000s, economic growth in the region has been accompanied by the diversification of political relations, which enabled several countries, including China, Russia, India, and Iran, to forge stronger ties with the region. Nowadays, Latin America considers Turkey as an important extra-hemispheric partner similar to other non-regional actors. Indeed, Turkey has recently secured more partners in the region than several other non-hemispheric actors, given its blatant disregard towards partner nations' human rights and democracy records. Both the left and right-wing governments find in Ankara a potential partner to develop a broad cooperation agenda.

What Motivates Turkey’s Interest in Latin America?

Primarily, Turkey has sought to diversify its partners beyond its traditional sphere of influence and expand its export market for its industries in Latin America. Turkish companies appear to be increasingly interested in pursuing new opportunities and investments there.

But more importantly, Turkey's proactive efforts to extend its influence farther abroad is mostly driven by the Turkish government's motive to raise the country's profile globally in a favorable international environment. With its “hyperactive” foreign policy, Erdogan’s Turkey aims at broader global influence and seeks a notable presence all around the world that plays well with the government’s nationalist base. This was more evident in the narrative of pro-government mouthpieces that consistently propagate that Turkey is not only well-positioned to successfully tackle the pandemic at home but that it also has the capacity to offer aid to the nations in need in Latin America. In this respect, Latin America appears as a noteworthy example of Ankara’s growing self-confidence and perception to portray the nation as an influential global power. Turkey’s latest move in the region could be seen as an instrumental source for its aspired image as a global power and status in international politics. 

Additionally, Ankara has projected itself as not just a global power but also a “revisionist” actor openly challenging its regional neighbors and Western actors. In line with this recent approach, Turkey emerged as the anti-imperialist and anti-hegemonic actor in Latin America that challenges U.S. policies against “oppressed countries.” Turkey’s anti-hegemonic discourse can best be seen in the Venezuela crisis. Erdoğan encouraged Maduro to keep resisting the “imperial attempt” to topple him: “Should Maduro stand tall and continue on the path he believes in, I am certain that the people of Venezuela will stand behind him.” On top of that, Turkey increasingly voiced its rejection against the unilateral intervention and sanctions in the region. On several occasions, Ankara denounced U.S. sanctions on Cuba and Venezuela.

The End of Diplomatic Overstretch?

Ankara’s increasing presence adds to skepticism about whether the Turkish government has been overstretching itself in Latin America, taking on more commitments and a higher profile than it can sustain in the long term. This question becomes more relevant as the Turkish economy faces severe structural problems with double-digit inflation, devaluation, and high unemployment. Given its shrinking budgetary ability, Turkey’s effort to sustain a meaningful presence in Latin America, Africa and East Asia at once is highly questionable. Changing domestic circumstances will make it hard for Ankara to be as active as it would wish on the global stage. Most likely, the cost of maintaining its presence abroad will exceed the benefits Turkey will get from engagement with the region.

With little hope about its economy's future, it will not be hard to predict that Turkey’s unprecedented diplomatic activism in Latin America is destined to fail. Despite all recent ambitious moves, Ankara will eventually need to recalibrate its posture towards the region through a selective approach targeting particular Latin American countries. The main question is when the Turkish government will learn to be mindful of its limitations.

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