ISTANBUL - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is telling his embattled Venezuelan counterpart, Nicolas Maduro, to "stand tall" in the face of national and international calls to step down amid a political crisis.
Maduro's opponents accuse him of undermining democracy. He has presided over skyrocketing inflation, a collapsing economy and widespread shortages of basic goods.
Erdogan said Thursday he was shocked at U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to recognize Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido as the interim president.
In response to the announcement, Maduro said Wednesday he was ending diplomatic relations with the United States and ordered U.S. diplomats to leave within 72 hours. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Maduro no longer has the authority to do so.
Erdogan maintained that Maduro will prevail "If he continues to stand strong in the path he believes in."
"Maduro, brother, stand tall. Turkey stands with you," Erdogan told Maduro by telephone, Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin tweeted Thursday.
"I thank Russia, China, Turkey, and other governments and people of the world for their strong support of the legitimately established government of Venezuela," Maduro said in a Twitter post. "Venezuela is not alone!" he added.
Despite the religiously conservative Erdogan and the left-wing Maduro coming from opposite ends of the political spectrum, the two leaders have built a strong relationship.
Maduro is a regular visitor to Turkey. He attended the Turkish president's inauguration, while Erdogan visited Venezuela last year. Maduro provoked widespread condemnation after images of him dining at a famous Istanbul steak house went viral. Many Venezuelans are struggling to find enough to eat due to widespread food shortages.
"The support of Erdogan is vital for Maduro," said Esra Akgemci of Turkey's Selcuk University.
"It is clear that Maduro sees Turkey as a strategic alliance and wants to build deeper relations," she added. "The support of Erdogan is more discursive. Erdogan himself had also suffered from a coup attempt [in 2016] and could not find the support he was seeking from the EU and USA, so supporting Maduro against a probable coup would strengthen his position both in internal and international politics."
During the visit to Caracas, Erdogan pledged that Turkish companies would invest over $4.5 billion in Venezuela. Turkey has an agreement to process tons of Venezuelan gold; a move interpreted as a possible way to circumvent future U.S. sanctions. Turkish Airlines continues daily flights to Caracas, while many other international carriers have stopped service.
Turkish media are also strongly backing Maduro, accusing Washington of seeking to bring down a democratically elected president. "U.S.-backed coup attempt, this time in Venezuela," read one headline.
"Massive U.S. pressure on any country could devastate its economy, finances, and politics easily. President Maduro's principled resistance against these international pressures is exemplary," wrote columnist Hakki Ocal in the pro-government Sabah newspaper.
Murat Yetkin, a well-known liberal journalist tweeted, "U.S.'s post-modern coup attempt in Venezuela cannot be accepted. The suffering of the people who live in the country with the richest oil reserves under the Maduro administration doesn't change that. The decision cannot be taken by the U.S. or Trump. Next, there might be an occupation, by the U.S. or its collaborators."
Turkish media have drawn parallels between Turkey and Venezuela, after Trump, in a tweet this month, threatened to "devastate" the Turkish economy if Ankara attacked U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish rebels.
In Turkey;'s deeply politically polarized society there is a rare consensus in support of Maduro.
"Most of the people here who can't find Venezuela let alone Caracas on the map, are all fully behind Maduro," said former senior Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen, "because they think the U.S. again is behind a coup or military intervention, as they did previously in Libya as they did in Egypt, as they did in Iraq. From the most hard core Islamist to the most hard core leftist today in Turkey, there is anti-Americanism. It is deep. It is fervent."
The social media hashtag #WeAreMaduro, became one of the leading trending topics in Turkey, with many Turks posting images and comments in support for Maduro. The picture of Maduro holding an ancient Turkic flag is widely circulated.
Turkey and Latin America share similar histories of coups throughout the 1960s, '70s and '80s. Many in Turkey accuse the U.S. of being involved in the military takeovers. Turkish ministers openly accused the U.S. of being involved in the 2016 coup attempt, a charge Washington has denied.
Erdogan's support for Maduro is expected to continue. Analysts point out standing up to what is deemed as "American imperialism" plays well in Turkey, and critical local elections are due to March; however, former diplomat Selcen suggests such support will remain mostly empty words.
"It's mainly rhetoric," said Selcen."There are some rumors that if things go south for Maduro, he can perhaps find refuge in Turkey. But I believe it's just about pleasing the crowd. When it comes to Venezuela, Turkey does not have the capacity to extend support to Venezuela. It's out of area."