SAN JUAN DE COLON, Venezuela — The freight company of Alfredo Rosales and his brothers was in full swing, its around 50 trucks constantly on the move transporting around 1 million tons of coal, cement, flour and other goods each year in trade between the Venezuela and Colombia.
Their work came to an abrupt halt in 2015, when Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government closed border crossings with its neighbor after years of deteriorating relations with Colombia’s conservative administrations.
“When they closed the border, we had nowhere to go to work. … It seriously hurt us,” Rosales said Thursday as he gazed at the family’s quiet five-acre truck depot in the western Venezuelan community of San Juan de Colon, on a plateau with views of lush mountains. They only have a handful of trucks now, the rest have been sold, some for scrap.
Still, optimism is beginning to creep into the border area now that leftist Gustavo Petro is sworn in as Colombian president on Sunday vowing to normalize relations with Maduro. The new Colombian foreign minister and his Venezuelan counterpart announced at the end of July that the border would gradually reopen after the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two nations.
“And that’s what’s left, I hope to start working,” Rosales said.
Despite these hopes, business owners and area residents know that meaningful auto activity across the border will not resume overnight. Venezuela’s economic woes have only worsened in the years since border trade was shut down and more than 6 million people have left in search of a better life, mostly in Latin America and the Caribbean. , of which about 1.8 million migrated to Colombia.
Colombia and Venezuela share a border of approximately 1,370 miles (2,700 kilometers). Bandits, drug dealers, paramilitary groups and guerrillas take advantage of the remote and desolate landscape to operate, though this did not deter trade before the shutdown.
And goods continued to enter Venezuela, illegally through dirt roads manned by armed groups and others with the blessing of authorities on both sides of the border. Similarly, illegal imports also enter Colombia, but on a smaller scale.
On Saturday, men dragged loads of soft drinks, bananas, cooking oil, special paper, scrap metal and other goods on carts, bicycles, motorbikes and their own backs down a converted illegal road in muddy mess from the rain.
The sanctioned trade, however, would flow at a much higher rate.
Although the border is long, all but two of the official border crossings between Venezuela and Colombia are concentrated on a 45-mile (75-kilometre) stretch, which before the closure handled 60% of commercial activity between neighbors. The country’s northernmost bridge is about 330 miles away, and Venezuela has continued to allow some goods through.
“Expectations are very positive and we have been waiting for a situation like this for so long,” said Luis Russián, president of the Venezuelan-Colombian Chamber of Economic Integration, which foresees that the agricultural, pharmaceutical and hygiene sectors personal be among the first to benefit from the reopening. “We consider that this is a new chapter that will be written between Venezuela and Colombia.”
Russián said a few Colombian companies have shown interest in joining the chamber as they consider trying to enter the Venezuelan market. The group had around 180 members in the late 2000s, but now numbers around half.
Food, cleaning supplies, auto parts, chemicals, and a myriad of other goods used to cross between the two nations. Trade remained strong even in the early years of Venezuela’s socialist governments, when the country’s oil dollars allowed companies to import all sorts of things. Those relations were strained when Venezuela’s economic slide prevented companies from meeting payments and accessing lines of credit.
Trade that reached $2.4 billion in 2014 was reduced last year to about $406 million, including $331 million in imports from Colombia, according to the Venezuela-based chamber. The group estimates that this year’s activity could reach $800 million if the border remains closed, but could reach $1.2 billion if the crossings reopen to vehicles.
The Venezuelan government has estimated that trade in the year following the full reopening of the border could exceed $4 billion.
“It’s going to generate jobs, it’s going to generate wealth, it’s going to generate possibilities to produce, to carry out commercial exchanges,” said Jesús Faría, president of the Permanent Commission of the Venezuelan National Assembly on the economy, finance and social development. .
Petro, unlike outgoing President Ivan Duque, has expressed a desire to improve relations with Venezuela. After Maduro’s re-election in 2018, Duque, along with dozens of other nations, stopped recognizing him as Venezuela’s rightful leader. Duque has supported the economic sanctions that the United States and the European Union have imposed on Venezuela and has repeatedly accused Maduro of protecting some Colombian rebels.
However, it will take more than repairing relations before tractor-trailers, tankers and other large vehicles can resume traffic between the two countries.
On the Venezuelan side, the roads leading to the border are in poor condition and the bridges have not been maintained. A span even shakes when pedestrians push particularly heavy loads on wheeled carts. A bridge that failed to open before the closure is still blocked by more than a dozen shipping containers and cement barricades.
Venezuelan truckers don’t have permits which they stopped paying when business went down. Their Colombian counterparts want security guarantees. Venezuelan business owners are hoping financing can be arranged somehow, as banks have stopped offering loans due to the country’s runaway inflation and other economic problems.
It’s not just big business hoping for renewed trade. Self-employed and small business owners are hoping for the resumption of regular vehicle traffic across the border.
Among them is Janet Delgado, who sells clothes in Venezuela that she buys in Colombia, where she walks about twice a week.
When she goes to buy just a few clothes, she uses a collapsible shopping cart. But like many other traders, if she has to bring a large load, she crosses the border by one of the illegal routes, where the price to move between countries is less than the bribes she would have to pay. to take the clothes home. an official crossing.
“It would help if they stopped charging us,” she said, referring to the bribes. “I bring two bags and they think one is a millionaire. (Motor Traffic) would be great for me and the others. I bring a few things, but others have a lot more.