Turkish Airlines carrying gold, not many people, from Caracas - Reuters

Turkish refineries are getting the largest share of Venezuelan gold as an estimated 300,000 fortune hunters have descended on the country’s mineral-rich jungle area to earn a living pulling gold-flecked earth from makeshift mines amid an economic meltdown, Reuters reported.  

Facilitating the transport of gold is Tukish Airlines, it said, noting, ''On New Year’s Day, 2018, Venezuela’s central bank began shipping gold to Turkey with a $36 million air shipment of the metal to Istanbul. It came just weeks after a visit by Maduro to Turkey. Shipments last year reached $900 million, according to Turkish government data and trade reports.'' 

Venezuela in December 2016 announced a direct flight from Caracas to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines. The development was surprising given low demand for travel between the two nations, Reuters reported however "trade data show those planes are carrying more than passengers."

Since 2016, the  leftist government of President Nicolas Maduro has purchased 17 tonnes of the metal worth around $650 million from so-called artisan miners, Reuters said, citing the most recent data from the nation's central bank.

‘’Paid with the country's near-worthless bank notes, these amateurs in turn supply the government with hard currency to purchase badly needed imports of food and hygiene products. This gold trade is a blip on international markets. Still, the United States is using sanctions and intimidation in an effort to stop Maduro from using his nation's gold to stay afloat,’’ the agency said.

As countries the world over are being castigated for their Venezuela gold purchases, questions are looming about just how Maduro's gold program functions.

Reuters spoke to miners, intermediaries, merchants, academic researchers, diplomats and government officials about just how Venezuela’s trade works with almost all requested anonymity for fear of Venezuelan or U.S. authorities.

Mining accidents are common in the ramshackle operations, and so are shootings and robberies, Reuters said, quoting one mine worker who said, "The government knows what happens in these mines and it benefits from it. Our gold goes into their hands."

Highlighting that Maduro has received crucial assistance from Turkish President Recep Erdoğan in dealing with it gold, Reuters stressed that Turkish pasta and powdered milk are now staples in Maduro's subsidized food program.

Trade between the two nations grew eightfold last year, it added.

Despite the fact that Maduro's adversaries have called on foreign buyers of Venezuela's precious metal to stop doing business with an ‘’illegitimate regime,’’  Maduro's gold program has developed in tandem with his deepening relationship with Erdoğan, Reuters said.

Ankara, for its part, has assured the U.S. Treasury that all of Turkey's trade with Venezuela is in accordance with international law, according to Reuters.

Turkish companies dealing with Venezuelan gold include Istanbul Gold Refinery, or IGR; and Sardes Kiymetli Mandele, a Turkish trading firm, however, IGR CEO Aysan Esen has denied the company has been involved in any Venezuelan deals, it said.

Meanwhile, Turkish consumer products continue making their way to Venezuelan tables with 54 containers of Turkish powdered milk arrived at the port of La Guaira near Caracas in December, according to port records seen by Reuters.