In the latest whiplash policy decision, Venezuela reopened the border with Colombia on Tuesday, just days after it had announced the 1,274-mile frontier would be closed until Jan. 2.
The surprise announcement came from Ernesto Villegas, Venezuela’s communications minister, in a series of tweets. Villegas said Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos had spoken late Monday and agreed to “gradually reopen” the border.
Colombia’s Interior Minister Juan Fernando Cristo said hundreds of people had gathered on the Simón Bolívar international bridge before dawn to take advantage of the reopening.
Maduro abruptly closed the busy frontier on Dec. 13 — the same day the nation began recalling its most widely circulated bill, the 100 bolivar note. Citing national intelligence, Maduro said Colombian border towns, particularly Cúcuta, were part of an international scheme to hoard hundreds of millions of the notes in order to destabilize the Venezuelan economy. By closing the borders, Maduro said he was punishing the currency “mafias.”
But the move also left thousands stranded with worthless bills and provoked widespread anger in Venezuela when the government failed to provide new, higher-denomination bills.
For Venezuelans, who have endured months of food shortages, the response spilled into the streets. Over the weekend, looting in Bolivar state left at least three dead and more than 400 detained. The Fedecamaras business chamber said at least 350 stores were sacked.
The chaos led Maduro on Saturday to revive the 100 bolivar bill through Jan. 2. But at the same time he said the border with Colombia would remain closed until after the new year, leaving holiday travelers stuck.
Amid protests from Colombia — and Monday’s phone call — Venezuela decided to reverse course. In his tweets, Villegas said Santos and Maduro had also agreed to have a conversation about the “attack” on the currency.
The decision to reopen came after Venezuelans forced their way through barricades to do their shopping. Colombian border towns, particularly Cúcuta, a town of about 600,000, have become critical for Venezuelans looking for food and medicine.
Santos traveled to Cúcuta Tuesday to talk about the border situation with the local business community but he’s insisted that Venezuela’s crisis is homegrown. After holding an emergency meeting there, Santos said Colombia would be sending a team to Venezuela to analyze the currency crisis.
He said the volume of bolivares being held by Colombian merchants and exchange houses "is very limited."
"The problem isn't that bolivares are being hoarded here. The problem is in Venezuela," he said.
Santos, who spoke with Maduro Monday night, said he pressed his counterpart on Venezuelan contraband flowing into Colombia, saying both sides need to do a better job of shutting down illegal smuggling trails.
Venezuela's subsidized goods (including cooking oil, flour and gasoline) are often spirited across the border where they can be sold at huge markups.
Finally, Santos said the central government is stepping up its support of Cúcuta and other border towns "so they don't have to depend on Venezuela or anyone in particular, but can rely on their own strength."
The changes in border policy occurred as Venezuela seems to be entering a renewed period of unrest amid the economic crisis, which features a shrinking economy and hyperinflation. After a prolonged period of relative calm, factions of the country’s opposition on Tuesday kicked off what they said would be a series of protests demanding Maduro’s ouster. But Tuesday’s turnout appeared lackluster.
Laidy Gómez, a Venezuelan opposition congresswoman from the border state of Táchira, on Tuesday suggested real change would come from people who are losing their patience with the socialist administration.
In a statement, she said pressure by hungry and frustrated citizens is what made the government reverse course.
“The population along the border...has simply lost its fear of a government that threatens it with violence,” she said. “And now that they’ve lost their fear, they’re ready to defend their rights.”