Looking for food — and fresh start — Venezuelans swarm across Colombian border

Venezuela reopens border with Colombia for first time in almost a year

Tens of thousands of Venezuelans are expected to cross the border to shop for food and medicine.
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Tens of thousands of Venezuelans are expected to cross the border to shop for food and medicine.

They came looking for flour, pasta and cooking oil. They came looking for blood pressure medicine, sparkplugs and condoms. They came looking for loved ones and a way out.

As Venezuelans on Saturday were formally allowed to cross the border into Colombia for the first time in almost a year, the river of wants they brought with them provided a stark glimpse of the needs on the other side of the border.

Carlos Texeiro, 45, traveled more than 400 miles from the city of Maracay with two empty suitcases for the chance to do a few hours of shopping in Colombia. Asked what he planned to take back with him, he said “anything I can find.”

But his primary goal was to buy diapers and powdered milk for his granddaughter. Baby products are some of the hardest things to score in shortage-plagued Venezuela.

Texeiro, a candy-salesman, said people aren’t going hungry in Maracay yet, but they’ve had to radically change their diet.

“We can get fruits and vegetables,” he said. “What we don’t have are the things we eat every day, flour and pasta. Meat is just too expensive.”

“I wouldn’t say there’s hunger but there’s huge lines, you have to wait in line to get anything you might want,” he added. “and you have to get lucky, very lucky.”

Others painted a darker picture. Nelson Buque, 26, said he lost 60 pounds in the last five months. A cab driver in Miranda state he said sometimes he goes home with cash but still hungry because he can’t find anything to eat.

“If you did find something open there would be lines that stretched for kilometers,” he said.

Trade along the 1,274-mile Venezuela-Colombia border has traditionally thrived. But on Aug. 19, 2015, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro began closing border crossings as he blamed Colombian “paramilitary groups” for attacking guards who were on an anti-contraband mission.

The border had been temporarily reopened on a handful of occasions since then, sparking huge waves of Venezuelan shoppers that drew global attention. On Thursday, however, the two governments said they’d reached an agreement to keep the border permanently open, but only to foot-traffic and only during the day.

Saturday’s 6 a.m. opening had a festive feel to it, as a military marching band greeted weary travelers, and police handed out balloon-animals to children. Families waited to greet relatives who they hadn’t seen since the border was shutdown.

Migration officials here are expecting anywhere from 80,000 to 100,000 people to cross the border this weekend. Travelers are also being required to fill out paperwork, which was causing bottlenecks but also seemed to be limiting the flow of people pouring into the city.

On the Colombian side of the border, merchants sold deodorant, toilet paper and sugar — all rare and prized commodities in Venezuela.

But not everyone was crossing with the intention of going home.

Alexandra Zapata, 21, said when she heard that the border would be open, she knew it was time to make a decision. She had a job at the mayor’s office in San Cristobal, a position, she says, that would be prestigious in any other country. But in Venezuela she didn’t earn enough to keep food on the table. She and her boyfriend crossed the international Simon Bolivar bridge Saturday morning with the aim of getting to Colombia’s capital, Bogotá.

While Colombia is flush with goods, it’s also expensive for Venezuelans who rely on their devalued bolivar currency. As she and her boyfriend ate three empanadas, Zapata noted that the snack cost about one-tenth of her monthly salary.

Even so, she thinks life will be better on this side of the border.

“There’s not a future for young people in Venezuela,” she said.