A Turkish-registered aircraft spent an hour on the ground in Caracas, Venezuela last night, before departing for the Dominican Republic. This particular aircraft, operated recently on African routes, had suddenly flown to Geneva and then Moscow immediately before the flight to Venezuela. The distance from Moscow to Caracas is 5365 nautical miles, outside the range of most Bombardier Global Express aircraft, but no refueling stop is indicated in the records. What is it doing there?
This is a long flight made to some interesting places at a very interesting moment in Venezuela’s history. Why would a Turkish charter would rapidly redeploy from Africa to Switzerland, then Moscow, and then make the fifteen hour flight to Venezuela? The obvious thing that ties those places together is gold.
Earlier this year the Miami Herald pointed out that Turkey had taken over for Geneva as Venezuela’s preferred gold “refiner,” but that gold was shipping to Turkey and not coming back again. The Herald concluded that this appeared to be the Turks, allegedly an American ally, helping Venezuela dodge sanctions — as Turkey had already done for Iran.
U.S. officials also arrested Mehmet Hakan Atilla, the deputy chief executive officer of Turkey’s state-owned Halkbank in New York, on related charges of Iran sanctions evasion. Atilla was found guilty on Jan. 3, 2018, of conspiring to violate U.S. sanctions law.
Now, the Treasury Department is currently considering whether to impose financial sanctions on Halkbank for its involvement in circumventing U.S.-imposed sanctions on Iran through a gold-for-gas scheme.
While Turkey faces major fines for allegedly violating U.S. sanctions on Iran, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appeared to launch a gold trade with a new partner from the list of the countries facing U.S. sanctions. It seems that the similar scheme to evade sanctions on Iran will be repeated.
The Maduro dictatorship has been shipping tons of gold to Turkey as a way of making up for state revenue lost due to American sanctions. The rate of decline in their gold stores is rapid: according to Reuters, “the central bank’s reserves would nearly disappear by the end of the year, leaving Maduro’s government struggling to pay for imports of basic goods.” A Bombadier Global Express aircraft can carry a payload of 5,770 pounds to 7,139 pounds depending on the model. If quick cash was needed to bribe military officers to stay loyal, both Turkey and Geneva make sense.
As for Moscow, its role is obvious. Vladimir Putin is clearly in the leadership role, with Venezuela’s Maduro in the back seat. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CNN that Maduro had been prepared to flee the country, with a plane on the tarmac, before Russia told him to sit tight. The Russians have military advisers on the ground, but they are not numerous enough to carry the day if there are widespread defections among the Venezuelan military. Reports that the United States Navy deployed two aircraft carriers headed south look like fog of war confusion today. Putin still needs Maduro to hang tough long enough to negotiate a deal.
“(There’s) little doubt in my mind that the Russians and the U.S. have been talking for weeks about some kind of deal to ease Maduro out of office,” Timothy Ash, a senior emerging markets strategist at Bluebay Asset Management, said in a note Wednesday…
Ash believed that, for the Russians, the “deal” was no more sanctions, allowing Russian oil companies to retain the right to operate in Venezuela and get paid back in full for debts owed, and some deal around “spheres of influence.”
That’s a good deal for Moscow, but what is in it for Erdogan and Maduro? For Maduro, feathering a nest for an overseas “retirement” would make a great deal of sense. For Erdogan, the death of the gold-for-food scheme potentially means he can seize the Venezuelan gold already in Turkey’s possession, claiming that the lawful government in Venezuela is not entitled to receive it because it came into power in “a coup.” (Eli Lake explains why this is not a coup, but a proper restoration of the lawful order.) Both of them have something to gain by ferrying out a little more of the national gold stocks, especially if they have been made aware that a deal is in the offing.
So are they ferrying gold? It would make sense, and if I were the relevant American authority, I would certainly be looking into it.