A vehicle loaded with aluminum adorned with balloons and the Venezuelan flag and another with medicines from the Colombian side crossed the Simón Bolívar international bridge on Monday in a ceremonial act that sealed the resumption of commercial relations after seven years of political tensions.
In a festive atmosphere, delegations from both countries met on the international bridge that rises over the Táchira River. On the Venezuelan side, Ramón Velásquez Araguayán, Minister of Transport, attended, and on the Colombian side, President Gustavo Petro, the first leftist in his country, who began the thaw in relations with Nicolás Maduro by recognizing him as the legitimate president of Venezuela contrary to his predecessor, who supported opposition leader Juan Guaidó.
Petro assured that it is a “symbol of unity” and indicated that the border should never have been closed and that the two governments are discussing the possibility of a special zone on the border that allows greater commercial integration.
The Colombian president also gave a political boost to his Venezuelan counterpart. “What happens in the political development of Venezuela must first of all be determined by the Venezuelan people themselves, just like what happens to us Colombians in political matters,” Petro said in an official statement after the vehicles passed. .
Hours earlier, Maduro celebrated the “total” opening of the border of the “brother” peoples and assured, in a Twitter message, that it is a “historic and transcendental day.”
The expectations of the merchants are high and they ask for the operations to be constant, although all the logistical details are not yet clear. “Hopefully we can reactivate the 1,200 direct jobs that were lost,” Sandra Guzmán Lizarazo, president of the Colombian Federation of Logistics Agents in International Trade in Cúcuta, told The Associated Press.
A few years ago, Guzmán recalled, they had 15 customs warehouses in the Colombian border city of Cúcuta and currently there is only one. Everyone left the city due to the commercial inactivity due to the closure of the border.
Velásquez Araguayán, the Venezuelan Minister of Transportation, told the press that from now on the commercial border will be open with the regulations established by the customs of both countries and the passage of transportation will be from 10 in the morning to 5 in the afternoon, while that the pedestrian will have a different schedule between 5 in the morning and 6 in the afternoon.
“We hope that this opening never has the intention of closing again, that this opening between brother peoples is permanent, that the border is an imaginary line,” said Velásquez Araguayán, accompanied by the Minister of Industries and National Production of Venezuela, Hipólito Abreu. , and the governor of the border state of Táchira, Freddy Bernal.
The extensive 2,200-kilometre border region between Colombia and Venezuela is linked by bridges that legally connect them. However, along it there are dozens of illegal steps -also called trails- through which contraband usually circulates with all kinds of products, including the most basic ones that Venezuela requires, and illegal groups are fighting for control of drug trafficking. weapons, drugs and human trafficking.
Javier Pabón, president of the Board of Directors of the Cúcuta Chamber of Commerce, told the AP that the commercial opening of the border may discourage smuggling because businessmen would prefer to export their products legally with all guarantees. “It will reduce the illegal intermediation that occurs towards Venezuela,” he added.
What used to be a common border that united family and economic ties changed radically in August 2015 when Maduro ordered its closure after an attack that left three soldiers injured while they were carrying out an operation against smuggling in San Antonio del Táchira, on the Venezuelan side. .
The open border where residents could shop or work from one side to the other has changed since then. Hundreds of Venezuelan soldiers guarded the closed border and a few days later the deportation of thousands of Colombians began.
Since then there have been intermittent closures and openings for pedestrians and more than two million Venezuelans have migrated to Colombia, but the commercial closure dealt a blow to the legal economy. Some merchandise managed to pass through the north of the border in Paraguachón, in Colombian La Guajira, the bridges of Norte de Santander that connect with the state of Táchira remained closed.
Gone are the boom years in which bilateral trade exceeded 7 billion dollars during its peak in 2008. In 2020, during the pandemic, the lowest figure was recorded with 222 million dollars, said the Colombian Ministry of Commerce.
The impact that the reopening will have for 2022 is still uncertain and estimates vary. According to the Colombo-Venezuelan Chamber, it could reach 1,000 million dollars and according to the Venezuelan government, 4,000 million dollars. In any case, it is about exceeding the current figure registered by the Colombian government, which indicates that until July trade reached 383 million dollars.
The two neighboring countries will also reactivate commercial air connectivity. The Venezuelan airline Turpial Airlines, from Caracas, will be the first to land in Bogotá on Monday. This is a change in the initial plan in which it was announced that the first flight would be made by the Venezuelan Consortium of Aeronautical Industries and Air Services (Conviasa).
However, the Colombian ambassador to Venezuela, Armando Benedetti, explained to the press on Friday that his country did not authorize the flight because Conviasa is sanctioned by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the Department of US Treasury, which considered that the Maduro government was using the airline to “transport corrupt officials of the regime around the world,” then-Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin said in 2020.
One of the main challenges that the governments have will be to control contraband and guarantee security on the border, where there is a presence of illegal armed groups such as the guerrilla National Liberation Army, the Clan del Golfo and the dissidents of the extinct Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
The National Tax and Customs Directorate (DIAN) of Colombia told the AP that the activation of customs operations will be controlled by the fiscal and customs police.