February 7, 2023

SAN JUAN DE COLON, Venezuela (AP) – The freight company owned by Alfredo Rosales and his brothers has been scrambling, with 50 or so trucks constantly moving nearly a million tons of coal, cement, flour and other goods each year in the trade 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 its neighbor after years of deteriorating relations with conservative Colombian administrations.

When they closed the borders, we had nowhere to go to work. Rosales said Thursday, looking at the family’s quiet five-acre truck depot in the community of San Juan de Colón in western Venezuela, on a plateau overlooking lush mountains… They now only have a few trucks, sell the rest, some for scrap.

However, optimism has begun to creep into the border region, after leftist Gustavo Petro was installed as Colombia’s president on Sunday, promising to normalize relations with Maduro. The incoming Colombian foreign minister and his Venezuelan counterpart announced in late July that the border would gradually open after the two countries restored diplomatic relations.

“And that’s what’s left, I hope you get to work,” Rosales said.

Despite these hopes, business owners and residents of the area know that cross-border vehicular activity will not resume overnight. Venezuela’s economic problems have worsened in the years since the border trade shutdown and more than 6 million people have left in search of a better life in Latin America and the Caribbean, with some 1.8 million migrating to Colombia.

Colombia and Venezuela share a border of about 1,370 miles (2,700 km). Bandits, drug dealers, paramilitary groups and fighters are taking advantage of the remote and desolate area to operate, although that did not prevent trade before the lockdown.

Goods continued to enter Venezuela illegally via dirt roads run by armed groups and others with the blessing of officials on both sides of the border. Similarly, illegal imports enter Colombia, but on a smaller scale.

On Saturday, men smuggled sodas, bananas, cooking oil, specialty paper, scrap metal and other goods onto carts, bikes and motorbikes with their backs on an illegal road turned into a muddy mess by the rain.

However, sanctioned trade will flow at a much higher rate.

Although the border is long, all but two of the official border crossings between Venezuela and Colombia are concentrated over a 45-mile (75-kilometre) stretch, which before the closure handled 60% of trade between the two neighbors. The northernmost bridge is about 330 miles away, and Venezuela has continued to allow some goods to pass there.

“The outlook is very positive, and we have been waiting for such a situation for a long time,” said Luis Rosian, head of the Venezuela-Colombian Chamber of Economic Integration, which forecasts the agricultural, pharmaceutical and personal hygiene sectors. Be among the first to benefit from the reopening. “We consider it a new chapter to be written between Venezuela and Colombia.”

Rossian said a few Colombian companies have expressed interest in joining the chamber as they consider whether to try to enter the Venezuelan market. The group had about 180 members in the late 2000s, but now has about half that number.

Food, cleaning products, auto parts, chemicals and a myriad of other commodities used for transit between the two countries. Trade remained strong even in the early years of Venezuela’s socialist governments, when the country’s petrodollars allowed companies to import all kinds of things. Those relations were strained when Venezuela’s economic meltdown left companies unable to meet payments and access credit lines.

According to the Venezuela-based chamber, the trade turnover, which amounted to $2.4 billion in 2014, fell last year to about $406 million, of which $331 million was imports from Colombia. The group estimates that activity this year could reach $800 million if the borders remain closed, but could rise to $1.2 billion if the crossings are reopened to vehicles.

The Venezuelan government has estimated that trade within a year of fully reopening the border could exceed $4 billion.

“This will create jobs, generate wealth, create possibilities for production, and to do trade,” said Jesus Faria, chair of the Standing Committee on Economics, Finance and Social Development of the Venezuelan National Assembly. .

Unlike outgoing President Ivan Duque, Petro has expressed his willingness to improve relations with Venezuela. After Maduro’s re-election in 2018, Duque and dozens of other countries stopped recognizing him as the legitimate leader of Venezuela. Duque has supported economic sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union on Venezuela and has repeatedly accused Maduro of protecting some Colombian rebels.

More than relationships will have to be repaired, before trailer trucks, tankers and other large vehicles can resume commuting between the two countries.

On the Venezuelan side, roads to the border are in poor condition and bridges have not been maintained. One stretch vibrates when pedestrians push particularly heavy loads on dolly carts. The bridge, which was not opened before the closure is still closed with more than 12 shipping containers and concrete barriers.

Venezuelan truck drivers lack permits, which they stopped paying when business dwindled. Their counterparts in Colombia want guarantees of safety. Venezuelan business owners hope the financing can be arranged somehow, as banks have stopped making loans due to the country’s hyperinflation and other economic problems.

It’s not just the big companies hoping to renew the trade. Freelancers and small business owners hope to resume regular vehicle movement across borders.

Among them is Janet Delgado, who sells clothes in Venezuela that she buys in Colombia, where she travels on foot about twice a week.

When she goes to buy a few clothes, she uses a foldable grocery cart. But like many other merchants, if she needs to bring in a large load, she crosses the border by one of the illegal ways, where the price of moving between countries is less than the bribes she has to pay to get clothes at home. official crossing.

“It would be helpful if they would stop charging us,” she said, referring to bribes. “I bring two bags and they think one of them is a millionaire. (Vehicle traffic) would be great for me and the others. I carry some things, but others carry a lot.”

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