CARACAS, Venezuela - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan heaped praise on Venezuela's embattled socialist leader Monday as political and economic ties between the two countries blossom.
Erdogan took the stage with President Nicolas Maduro in the first visit by a Turkish leader to Venezuela. He stopped in Caracas after attending the Group of 20 summit in Argentina.
The Turkish president said Venezuela's government has been unfairly hit by international sanctions amid its economic crisis, punishing an entire nation.
The United States and several European nations have sanctioned Maduro's administration in an attempt to pressure Venezuela into making a return to democratic ways.
Erdogan vowed to offer help for Venezuela and he praised Maduro, contrasting the Venezuelan against other world leaders whom he said espouse divisive sentiments.
"I think Mr. Maduro's exemplary attitude is very valuable at a time when enmity toward Islam has risen and Western countries are stoking hostility toward foreigners," Erdogan said.
Figures from the Turkish Statistical Institute say that in the first nine months of the year, Turkey bought $900 million in gold mined in Venezuela - revenue that has helped replace the government's crashing oil revenues.
That marks a dramatic increase in trade between the two countries, which totaled just $84 million in 2016, officials said.
Maduro said the two countries will build on the economic and diplomatic foundations. Erdogan and Maduro signed a series of agreements in areas that include mining, commercial and formalizing cooperation between the two countries state-run oil companies.
U.S. sanctions also target Venezuela's gold sales, but Maduro defiantly said that won't stop him from continuing his country's newfound trade with Turkey.
"Whatever Venezuela produces, it has a right to sell in the world," Maduro said. "Next year we're going to break a record, tripling our production."
He also denied the gold profits go into his pockets, saying the money goes to build homes, pay for schools, obtain provide medicine and provide social services. Opposition politicians have accused Maduro of heading a corrupt government at his peoples' expense.
Earlier this year, Maduro drew the ire of critics during a stop-over in Turkey, when he dined at an exclusive steakhouse in Istanbul.
Video clips on social media went viral showing Maduro eating prime meat, smoking a cigar and posing for photos with the restaurant's flamboyant celebrity chef while people back home struggle with widespread food shortages.
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