November 28, 2023

SAN JUAN DE COLON, Venezuela (AP) — The freight company owned by Alfredo Rosales and his brothers was, with its 50 or so trucks constantly on the move carrying about 1 million tons of coal, cement, flour and other goods each year in trade between Venezuela and Colombia.

Their work came to an abrupt halt in 2015 when the socialist government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro closed border crossings with its neighbor after years of strained relations with conservative Colombian administrations.

“When the borders were closed, we had nowhere to go to work. … It hurt us badly,” Rosales said Thursday as he looked out over the family’s quiet 5-acre truck depot in the western Venezuelan community of San Juan de Colon, on a plateau overlooking the green mountains. They only have a handful of trucks now, the rest sold off, some for scrap.

But optimism is beginning to seep into the border region now that leftist Gustavo Petro is inaugurated as Colombia’s president on Sunday promising to normalize relations with Maduro. Colombia’s new foreign minister and his Venezuelan counterpart announced in late July that the border would gradually open after the two countries restored diplomatic ties.

“And that’s what’s left, hopefully we can get to work,” Rosales said.

Despite those hopes, business owners and local residents know that significant road activity across the border will not resume overnight. Venezuela’s economic woes have only worsened in the years since the border trade was closed, and more than 6 million people have left in search of a better life mainly in Latin America and the Caribbean, with an estimated 1.8 million migrating to Colombia.

Colombia and Venezuela share a border of approximately 1,370 miles (2,700 km). Bandits, drug traffickers, paramilitary groups and insurgents take advantage of the remote and desolate landscape to operate, although this did not prevent trade before the closure.

And the goods continued to enter Venezuela, illegally on dirt roads manned by armed groups and others with the blessing of officials on both sides of the border. Similarly, illegal imports also enter Colombia, but on a smaller scale.

On Saturday, men loaded loads of soft drinks, bananas, cooking oil, special paper, scrap metal and other products onto pushcarts, bicycles, motorbikes and their own backs on an illegal road turned into a muddy mess by the rain.

However, the sanctioned trade 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 in a 75-kilometer stretch, which before the closure handled 60 percent of trade between the neighbors. The country’s northernmost bridge is about 330 miles away, and Venezuela has continued to allow some cargo to pass there.

“Expectations are very positive and we have been waiting for a situation like this for so long,” said Luis Russián, president of the Venezuela-Colombia Chamber of Economic Integration, which predicts that the agriculture, pharmaceutical and personal hygiene sectors will be among the first. who will benefit from the reopening. “We think it’s a new chapter that’s going to be written between Venezuela and Colombia.”

The Russian said some Colombian companies have shown interest in joining the chamber as they consider whether to try to enter the Venezuelan market. The group had about 180 members in the late 2000s, but now has about half that.

Food, cleaning products, auto parts, chemicals and a myriad of other goods used to transit between the two nations. Trade remained strong even in the early years of Venezuela’s socialist governments, when the country’s petrodollars allowed businesses to import all sorts of things. Those relations were strained when Venezuela’s economic slide left businesses unable to meet payments and access credit lines.

Trade that in 2014 reached $2.4 billion fell last year to about $406 million, of which $331 million were imports from Colombia, according to the Venezuela-based chamber. The group estimates this year’s activity could reach $800 million if borders remain closed, but could reach $1.2 billion if crossings are reopened to vehicles.

The Venezuelan government has estimated that the trade exchange within a year of the full reopening of the border could exceed $4 billion.

“This will create employment, it will create wealth, it will create production possibilities, for commercial exchanges,” said Jesus Faria, president of the Standing Committee on Economy, Finance and Social Development of the Venezuelan National Assembly. .

Petro, unlike outgoing President Ivan Duque, has expressed a willingness to improve ties with Venezuela. After Maduro was re-elected in 2018, Duque, along with dozens of other nations, stopped recognizing him as Venezuela’s legitimate leader. Duque supported economic sanctions imposed by the US and the European Union on Venezuela and repeatedly accused Maduro of protecting some Colombian rebels.

However, more than just relations will need to be mended before trailer trucks, tankers and other large vehicles can continue to move between the two countries.

On the Venezuelan side, the roads leading to the border are in ruins and the bridges have not been maintained. The one rarely shakes even when pedestrians are pushing particularly heavy loads in carts. A bridge that hadn’t opened before the shutdown is still blocked by more than a dozen shipping containers and concrete barricades.

Venezuela’s truckers do not have permits, which they stopped paying for when business declined. Their counterparts in Colombia want security guarantees. Venezuelan business owners are hoping that somehow financing can be arranged, as banks have stopped offering loans due to the country’s soaring inflation and other economic problems.

It’s not just big companies with hopes for trade renewal. The self-employed and small business owners have hopes for the resumption of regular vehicular traffic at the border.

Among them is Janet Delgado, who sells clothes in Venezuela that she buys in Colombia, where she travels on foot about twice a week.

When she goes to buy just a few clothes, she uses a folding grocery cart. But like many other traders, if he needs to carry a large load, he crosses the border by one of the illegal routes, where the price to move between countries is lower than the bribes he would have to pay to get the clothes home. official passage.

“It would be helpful if they stopped charging us,” she said, referring to the bribes. “I bring two bags and they think one is a millionaire. (Vehicle Traffic) would be great for me and others. I bring a few things, but others carry much more.’

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