SAN JUAN DE COLUMBUS, Venezuela –
The cargo company owned by Alfredo Rosales and his brothers was in a hurry, its 50 or so trucks constantly on the move, transporting around 1 million tons of coal, cement, flour and other goods each year in trade between Venezuela and Colombia.
Their work came to an abrupt halt in 2015, when the socialist government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro closed border crossings with its neighbor after years of deteriorating relations with Colombia’s conservative administrations.
“When they closed the border, we had nowhere to go to work … It hurt us badly,” Rosales said Thursday as he surveyed the family’s quiet five-acre trucking yard in the western Venezuelan community of San Juan de Colón. on a plateau overlooking lush mountains. Now they only have a handful of trucks, the rest sold, some for scrap.
However, optimism is beginning to creep into the border area now that leftist Gustavo Petro has been sworn in as Colombia’s president on Sunday and vowed to normalize relations with Maduro. Colombia’s incoming foreign minister and his Venezuelan counterpart announced in late July that the border will gradually reopen after the two nations reestablish diplomatic ties.
“And this is what is left, I hope I can start working,” Rosales said.
Despite those hopes, business owners and residents of the region know that significant vehicular activity across the border will not resume overnight. Venezuela’s economic problems have 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 around 1.8 million migrating. to Colombia.
Colombia and Venezuela share a border of about 2,700 kilometers (1,370 miles). Bandits, drug traffickers, paramilitary groups and guerrillas take advantage of the remote and desolate landscape to operate, although that did not stop the trade before the closure.
And goods have continued to enter Venezuela, illegally along dirt roads run by armed groups and others with the blessing of officials on both sides of the border. Similarly, illegal imports also enter Colombia, but on a smaller scale.
On Saturday, the men dragged loads of soft drinks, bananas, cooking oil, special paper, scrap metal and other items in cars, bicycles, motorcycles and on their own backs down an illegal road turned into a quagmire by rain.
Sanctioned trade, however, would 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 in a 75-kilometer (45-mile) stretch, which before the closure handled 60% of the commercial activity between the neighbors. The country’s northernmost bridge is some 330 miles away, and Venezuela continued to allow some cargo to cross there.
“The expectations are very positive and we have been waiting for a situation like this for a long time,” said Luis Ruso, president of the Colombian-Venezuelan Chamber of Economic Integration, which projects that the agricultural, pharmaceutical and personal hygiene sectors will be one of the first to benefit from the reopening. “We consider that it is a new chapter that is going to be written between Venezuela and Colombia.”
Russian said some Colombian companies have shown 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 is now about half that number.
Food, cleaning products, auto parts, chemicals, and a myriad of other goods used to cross between the two nations. Trade remained strong even in the early years of Venezuela’s socialist governments, when the country’s oil dollars allowed companies to import all sorts of things. Those relationships became strained when Venezuela’s economic downturn left companies unable to meet payments and access lines of credit.
Trade, which in 2014 reached $2.4 billion, fell last year to about $406 million, of which $331 million were imports from Colombia, according to the Venezuela-based chamber. The group estimates activity this year could reach $800 million if the border remains closed, but could reach $1.2 billion if crossings are reopened to vehicles.
The Venezuelan government has estimated that trade within a year of a fully reopened border could exceed $4 billion.
“This is going to generate employment, this is going to generate wealth, this is going to generate possibilities to produce, to make commercial exchanges,” said Jesús Faria, president of the Permanent Commission of Economy, Finance and Social Development of the National Assembly of Venezuela. .
Petro, unlike the outgoing president, Iván Duque, has expressed his willingness to improve ties with Venezuela. After Maduro’s re-election in 2018, Duque, along with dozens of other nations, stopped recognizing him as the legitimate leader of Venezuela. Duque supported the economic sanctions that the US and the European Union imposed on Venezuela and repeatedly accused Maduro of protecting some Colombian rebels.
However, more than relations will have to be repaired before tractor-trailers, tankers and other large vehicles can resume movement between the two countries.
On the Venezuelan side, the roads leading to the border are in poor condition and the bridges have not been maintained. One stretch even shakes when pedestrians push particularly heavy loads on rolling carts. A bridge that could not be opened before the closure is still blocked by more than a dozen shipping containers and concrete barricades.
Venezuelan truck drivers lack permits that they stopped paying for when business declined. Their counterparts in Colombia want security guarantees. Venezuelan business owners hope that financing can somehow be arranged, as banks have stopped offering loans due to the country’s runaway inflation and other economic problems.
It’s not just big business that’s hoping for renewed trade. Small business owners and self-employed workers are hopeful that regular vehicle traffic will resume across the border.
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 few clothes, she uses a collapsible supermarket trolley. But like many other traders, if he needs to bring a large load, he crosses the border on one of the illegal roads, where the price to move between countries is lower than the bribes he would have to pay to bring the clothes home. an official crossing.
“It would be helpful if they stopped charging us,” he said, referring to the bribes. “I bring two bags and they think one is a millionaire. (Vehicle traffic) would be great for me and others. I bring few things, but others bring much more”.