By Juliana Numa Mariño
Cucuta, Colombia, Oct 5 (EFE).- The main border crossing points between Colombia and Venezuela were opened to pedestrians again on Tuesday after a decision by Caracas seen as a prelude to the anticipated resumption of commercial activity between the two countries.
In Cucuta, the capital of Colombia’s Norte de Santander province, expectations are high regarding the announced reopening of the border to commercial traffic into the Venezuelan state of Tachira, given that trade is vital for the both Bogota and Caracas.
Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro government closed the border in 2015 and his administration reiterated on Monday that the containers that it had put in place to block passage across the Simon Bolivar international bridge had been removed, with pedestrians once again crossing to Cucuta for medical treatment or to buy basic goods unavailable in Venezuela.
“I feel happy because they opened the way on the Simon Bolivar. I came to buy some groceries, which is the most important thing, and to bring my mother to the doctor for her eye appointment, and I hope they can operate on her because at the Central Hospital (in Venezuela) there’s nothing. There, you have to buy the anesthesia, gloves, everything. You can’t get sick,” Luis Alfonso Leal, a Venezuelan who came from San Cristobal and crossed the bridge on foot, told EFE.
Like him, many Venezuelans, and Colombians living in that country, came to the bridge on Tuesday, thus avoiding the narrow paths on which people had been illegally sneaking across in recent years, hoping that the barriers to binational traffic would be lifted between countries that have had no diplomatic relations or consular representation in each other’s territory since February 2019.
Trade between Colombia and Venezuela, which in 2008 exceeded $7 billion, started falling in subsequent years to practically zero due to political differences between the two governments and the crisis in Venezuela, a situation that affected the economy in Cucuta and nearby Venezuelan cities like San Antonio, San Cristobal and Ureña.
“We believe, and we’re convinced, that the pedestrian opening will generate an immediate resumption and this will lead to the creation of jobs, which is what this city needs so much,” the executive director of the Cucuta Chamber of Commerce, Carlos Luna, told EFE.
Luna said that the closure of the border in August 2015 by the Maduro government, using the excuse that it needed to fight Colombian criminal groups and then extended for health reasons amid the coronavirus pandemic, have caused great economic harm in the region.
“It’s undeniable that this issue of pedestrian closure affected not only businessmen but also the social and cultural life of the border (area) … Even the informal economy was affected, (and) the effect of this situation stemming from the diplomatic and political differences between Colombia and Venezuela is incalculable,” he said.
After Venezuela’s announcement that it would reopen the border to trade, Colombian President Ivan Duque said on Monday that his country is ready to begin “an orderly process” but without hurrying, and on Tuesday he said that consular services suspended in 2019 when Maduro expelled Colombian diplomats from Venezuela could also be resumed.
“We’re open, if the conditions exist and if there are guarantees, to reestablishing consular service, but obviously on the premise that all the guarantees in security matters exist,” Duque said.
Despite the fact that the two nations have not had diplomatic relations for some years, the opening of the border was made possible via the efforts of Norte de Santander Border Secretary Victor Bautista and Maduro’s specially picked delegate for Tachira state, Freddy Bernal, who met on Sept. 3 to find a way out of the impasse.
However, the governor of Tachira, Laidy Gomez, who belongs to Maduro’s political opposition, on Tuesday complained that the border remains closed since “only specific humanitarian cases at the discretion of the Bolivarian National Guard (Venezuela’s militarized police) may cross … the bridge.”
The Colombian government noted on Tuesday that although the country completely closed its border in March 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, on June 2, 2021, Bogota authorized the “gradual opening” of land and river crossing points with Venezuela.
“We opened the border on June 2 and since (then) there has been authorized passage from Colombia, although from Venezuela that opening has not taken place,” Colombian Immigration director Juan Francisco Espinosa said Tuesday on making a visit to the bridge.
He added that “removing the containers is going to facilitate binational trade” and went on to say that he is hoping to begin cargo shipments “once we review the stability of the bridges.”
Therefore, in Cucuta people are hopeful that the rapprochement will lead to a de facto resumption of neighborly relations.
“We need the opening to vehicular traffic so that there’s a commercial reactivation because the trade link between the two nations must be resumed immediately to help the commercial and transport sectors,” said Luis Eduardo Ochoa, the legal representative for the Santander Trade Center, one of the main such entities in Cucuta.