By Jaime Ortega Carrascal
Bogota/Caracas, Sep 21 (EFE).- Renewed dynamic trade ties between Colombia and Venezuela, a pillar of good-neighbor relations that had nearly collapsed entirely in recent years due to political tensions, is a possibility once again now that a full border reopening is just days away.
Bilateral trade, despite diplomatic ups-and-downs dating back more than three decades, reached a record high of $7.2 billion in 2008. But that figure has plunged by more than 90 percent since then amid a deep deterioration in the bilateral relationship.
In 2013, the year leftist Nicolas Maduro succeeded his late mentor and predecessor Hugo Chavez as Venezuela’s president, bilateral trade had fallen to $1.8 billion.
It hit rock bottom at $116.4 million in 2017 before climbing to $268.6 million last year, according to Colombia’s National Administrative Department of Statistics (DANE).
That situation should begin to change soon, however, with the full reopening of the 2,219-kilometer (1,380-mile) frontier on Sept. 26.
Closed to vehicular traffic since August 2015, Maduro ordered part of the border closed to bolster what he described as a fight against smuggling and Colombian paramilitary groups.
Three weeks later, the United Nations said 1,467 Colombians had been expelled from Venezuela and 18,619 others had left the neighboring country of their own accord due to the border crisis.
Diplomatic and consular relations were later completely severed by Maduro on Feb. 23, 2019, amid tensions with the then-Colombian president, Ivan Duque, over his recognition of opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate head of state.
However, the election of leftist Gustavo Petro as Colombia’s president in June of this year not only opened the possibility of a full reestablishment of full diplomatic ties but also of a complete reopening of the border with the resumption of air connections and cargo transportation.
Petro and Maduro are both accelerating the countries’ diplomatic thaw, with Venezuela’s president stating on Sept. 9 that he estimates bilateral trade could reach $2 billion.
Colombian Ambassador to Venezuela Armando Benedetti, for his part, predicted that cross-border trade would climb to $10 billion by an unspecified time period.
“It’s no longer like before; things have changed. How nice to have good relations with Colombia,” Maduro said earlier this month.
Despite the enthusiasm on both sides, experts say the interruptions of the past seven years have left a range of logistical, migratory, customs, phytosanitary and security challenges that must be resolved before bilateral trade flows smoothly once again.
“What’s coming now is the reopening of the border, but in terms of bilateral trade the legal framework that will govern it hasn’t yet been defined,” Javier Diaz Molina, president of the National Association of International Commerce of Colombia (Analdex), a private non-profit entity, told Efe.
He recalled that Venezuela is no longer part of the Andean Community (CAN), having withdrawn from that bloc in April 2011, and for that reason the two countries no longer have a tariff-free trade relationship.
“We have to see what the legal framework will be, if it’s going to function through Aladi (Latin American Integration Association), if it’ll be a complementation agreement, a partial-scope agreement. This needs to be defined so there’s clarity on what the rules of the game of the trade (relationship) are,” Diaz Molina said.
Good intentions are not enough, the Analdex chief said, adding that the trade dynamic also will depend on the economic reality of Venezuela, a country still struggling to recover from years of crisis.
“Venezuela’s gross domestic product plunged by 75 percent between 2013 and 2021. So the Venezuela of today is not the same as 2008 (…) the Venezuela of today is a quarter of what it was in 2008,” Diaz Molina said. EFE