Venezuelans urged not to rush border with Colombia as it reopens

Venezuelans cross the Simon Bolivar bridge linking San Antonio del Tachira, Venezuela, with Cucuta, Colombia, to buy supplies on July 17, 2016.
Venezuelans cross the Simon Bolivar bridge linking San Antonio del Tachira, Venezuela, with Cucuta, Colombia, to buy supplies on July 17, 2016. AP

Colombian authorities are urging Venezuelans not to rush the borders this weekend seeking food, medicine and other basic goods, as the two nations take the first step toward restoring commercial ties along their 1,274-mile frontier.

The two nations announced Thursday that the border — which has been shut almost entirely since Aug. 19, 2015 — will reopen permanently starting Saturday. In this initial stage, however, it will only be open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. EDT, and only to foot traffic.

In previous weeks, when the border was temporarily opened, an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 Venezuelans swarmed into Colombia looking for basic goods that have become rare commodities on the other side of the border.

Colombia Migration Director Christian Kruger on Friday tried to reassure desperate Venezuelans that there was no need to rush across on opening day.

“Not everyone has to cross [Saturday] and Sunday,” he said. “The border is open for good.”

Even so, Colombian authorities say they’ve tripled the number of border guards at the five crossings that are being reopened. Travelers will also need to fill out migratory forms, a new requirement that might help reduce the flow, Kruger said.

Venezuela and Colombia share deep cultural and trade ties. But those connections were severed last year when Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro ordered all border crossings to be shut, blaming Colombian criminals for contraband and attacking Venezuelan border guards.

Suffering Border

The closure was a shock to the entire region. In the Colombian border town of Cúcuta, one of the central hubs of commerce, unemployment spiked and companies went out of business, Mayor Cesar Omar Rojas said.

“Our business owners have had to find new markets inside the country, in Central America and South America,” he said. “We’re ready for the border to reopen.”

Even so, this first step is a half-measure at best. Until cargo and passenger vehicles are allowed to move freely again, trade along the border will remain muted, he said.

And while tens of thousands of Venezuelan shoppers are expected in Cúcuta this weekend, their bolivar currency is so devalued it’s unlikely to have much of an impact, he said.

“They’ll be coming here for basic products” like food and medicine, Rojas said. “They’re not going to be able to help our clothing or shoe-making industry.”

Industry groups said most border areas are sufficiently stocked to be able to meet the demands of the swarms of shoppers.

Triple-digit inflation and a shortage of many basic goods — including flour and milk — have Venezuela on edge. Access to the fully-stocked Colombian shelves will offer relief to many who live on the border.

Caracas and Bogotá have often been at odds. Maduro regularly accuses shadowy forces in Colombia (including former President Alvaro Uribe) of trying to topple him. And Colombia has accused Venezuela in the past of turning a blind-eye to guerrilla groups that take refuge along the border.

On Thursday, when the leaders of both nations announced the border opening, Maduro said he hoped it would be a new beginning.

“We’re just steps away from being an example of how we can build and rebuild relations of all types: human, political and diplomatic,” he said.