Venezuela, Colombia border areas hope when reopening looms
SAN JUAN DE COLON, Venezuela –
The freight company owned by Alfredo Rosales and his brothers was hustling, its more than 50 trucks continuously hauling around 1 million tons of coal, cement, flour and other cargoes. each year in commercial activity between Venezuela and Colombia.
Their work came to an abrupt halt in 2015, when the socialist government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro closed border crossings with the neighboring country after years of deteriorating relations with the party’s Colombian authorities. Conservative.
“When they closed the border, we didn’t have a place to go to work. … It hurt us so badly,” Rosales said Thursday as she peered through the quiet five-acre truck warehouse. family in the community of San Juan de Colon, western Venezuela, on a plateau with views of the lush mountains. Currently, they only have a few trucks, the rest are sold out, some are for scrap.
However, optimism is beginning to creep into the border area, now that leftist Gustavo Petro is being sworn in as Colombia’s president on Sunday and has promised to normalize relations with Maduro. The incoming foreign minister of Colombia and his Venezuelan counterpart announced at the end of July that the border would gradually reopen after the two countries restored diplomatic relations.
“And here’s what’s left, hopefully starting to work,” Rosales said.
Despite those hopes, business owners and residents in the area know that meaningful cross-border vehicular activity won’t resume overnight. Venezuela’s economic crisis has only worsened in the years since border trade was closed and more than 6 million people left in search of a better life mainly in Latin America and the Caribbean, with about 1 8 million people emigrated to Colombia.
Colombia and Venezuela share a border about 2,700 km long. Robbers, drug dealers, paramilitary groups and guerrillas took advantage of the remote and desolate setting to operate, although that didn’t stop the trade before it closed.
And goods have continued to enter Venezuela, illegally via dirt roads manned by armed groups and others with the support of officials on both sides of the border. Similarly, illegal imports also enter Colombia, but on a smaller scale.
On Saturdays, men carry piles of soft drinks, bananas, cooking oil, specialty paper, scrap metal and other goods on carts, bicycles, motorbikes and their backs down an irregular road. legal has turned into a muddy pile due to the rain.
However, sanctioned trade will flow at a much higher rate.
Despite the long border, all but two of the official border crossings between Venezuela and Colombia are concentrated in a 45-mile (75-kilometer) stretch that, prior to closing, handled 60% of trade. between neighboring countries. The country’s northernmost bridge is about 330 miles away, and Venezuela continues to allow some cargo through it.
“Expectations are very positive and we have been waiting for a situation like this for a long time,” said Luis Russian, president of the Venezuela-Colombian Economic Integration Chamber. be among the first to benefit from the reopening. “We see this as a new chapter that will be written between Venezuela and Colombia.”
Russian said a number of Colombian companies have shown interest in joining as they consider whether to try to enter the Venezuelan market. The group had about 180 members in the late 2000s but is now almost half.
Food, cleaning products, auto parts, chemicals and countless other goods are used to travel between the two countries. Trade was still going strong even during the early years of the socialist governments in Venezuela, when the country’s oil dollars allowed businesses to import everything. Those relationships became strained as Venezuela’s economy slipped, leaving businesses unable to meet payments and access lines of credit.
According to the Venezuela-based investigative agency, trade in 2014 of $2.4 billion has fallen to about $406 million, of which $331 million is imported from Colombia. The group estimates activity this year could reach $800 million if borders remain closed, but could go up to $1.2 billion if gates reopen to traffic.
The Venezuelan government has estimated that trade within a year of the borders being fully reopened could exceed $4 billion.
“It will create jobs, it will create wealth, it will create productive possibilities,” said Jesus Faria, chairman of the Standing Committee on Economic, Financial and Social Development of the National Assembly of Venezuela. , carry out commercial exchanges”. .
Petro, unlike outgoing President Ivan Duque, has expressed a willingness to improve relations with Venezuela. Following Maduro’s 2018 re-election, Duque, along with dozens of other countries, stopped recognizing him as Venezuela’s legitimate leader. Duque supports the economic sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union on Venezuela and has repeatedly accused Maduro of protecting some Colombian rebels.
Many relationships will have to be repaired, however, before trucks, tankers and other large vehicles can continue to travel between the two countries.
On the Venezuelan side, the roads leading to the border are in disrepair and the bridges are not maintained. One beat even vibrated when pedestrians pushed special heavy loads onto the dolly. A bridge that had not been opened before closing was still blocked by more than a dozen shipping containers and cement barriers.
Truckers in Venezuela lack permits and they stopped paying as business declined. Their partners in Colombia want security. Venezuelan business owners hope that somehow financing can be arranged, as banks stop providing loans due to high inflation and other economic problems in the country.
It’s not just the big companies that have hopes of commercial innovation. Small business owners and freelancers hope for regular border traffic to return.
Among them is Janet Delgado, who sells clothes in Venezuela that she buys in Colombia, where she walks about twice a week.
When she’s just shopping for a few clothes, she uses a collapsible grocery cart. But like many merchants, if she needed to carry a large amount of goods, she would cross the border by one of the illegal routes, where the price to move between countries was less than the bribe she paid. she will have to pay to get the clothes home. an official border crossing.
“It would be helpful if they stopped charging us,” she said, referring to the bribes. “I carry two bags and they think one is a millionaire. (Traffic) will be great for me and for others. I carry a few things, but others carry more.”