President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey met in Havana with Cuban President Raul Castro Thursday to discuss building closer ties between the two countries. While Turkey and Cuba only share a minor trade partnership due to economic sanctions, they appear to have made inroads as of late toward a cultural relationship. This in itself appears to be a prize in Erdogan’s eyes, who proposed the construction of a mosque on the island, all the while condemning decades of harsh U.S.-backed policies that he claimed have harmed the Cuban people.
The warm Cuba visit followed Erdogan’s this far successful charm offensive in the region; the president stopped in Colombia earlier this week, and will be next making a short trip to Mexico. In Colombia, Presidents Erdogan and Juan Manuel Santos signed several significant agreements honoring bilateral relationships between the two nations, including an increase in Turkish development projects in Colombia and a commitment to improve Spanish-language education in Turkey. Most importantly, the two states plan to reach $5 billion in trade by 2023, the centennial year of Turkish sovereignty. The year is clearly a symbolic benchmark for the post-Ottoman republic, which has recently vowed to break into the top ten largest world economies by that time.
One assumes that Erdogan understands that his country’s impressive recent growth — and the fulfillment of its future ambitions — will depend on wise global policy. After all, Turkey is a regional power with a strong economy but negligible energy capabilities. As a result, its rise to international geopolitical prominence depends on cultivating a diverse portfolio of global partnerships that pay dividends in resources and strategic advancement.
Fortunately for Anatolia, Turkey enjoys a practically unique global advantage in building beneficial ties. As one of the most democratic and wealthiest Muslim-majority countries, Turkey is widely seen as a critical bridge between the East and West. It maintains a political relationship with so-called “rogue” countries, which has allowed it to mediate important talks between powers. Its cultural and economic ties to the Middle East and the E.U. make it a capable influencer in both places — though relations with Brussels have been strained in recent years. According to Vali Nasr in his book The Dispensable Nation, President Barack Obama probably consulted more during his first three years in office with Erdogan than any other head of state. Though relations have since cooled, Turkey remains a highly consequential state.
While Latin America is more removed from the conflicts and geopolitical challenges Turkey tends to focus on, it is nonetheless a crucial part of Turkish strategy. Erdogan’s current tour through Colombia, Cuba and Mexico was preceded by Turkish delegations to several other Latin American countries over the past several years that resulted in various economic partnerships, including a free trade deal with Chile in 2011. Yet while trade between Turkey and Latin America has increased over tenfold since 2011, the total is still less than $10 billion annually. The meager numbers suggest — like the Cuba mosque proposal — that Turkey’s interest in the region may be more strategic and cultural than economic.
To be sure, Latin America, like Turkey, has great potential for economic growth and these seeds could well be reaped in the coming years. But Turkey could also be making a small move to undermine the hegemony of Western influence in the Western hemisphere to improve its geopolitical prospects down the line. Latin American states could also change the dynamics of transnational partnerships as seen during the (ultimately failed) joint Turkish-Brazilian diplomatic initiatives toward Iran in 2010. Latin America also has stores of the one biggest thing that Turkey needs — energy. And to maintain its position as a growing pivotal state, Turkey can never become too dependent on one source to power it.