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Venezuela sees some perks of renewed ties with Colombia after years of disputes

Workers unload boxes of mayonnaise for inspection by customs officials at a warehouse in the Venezuelan border town of San Antonio del Táchira.
John Otis for NPR
Workers unload boxes of mayonnaise for inspection by customs officials at a warehouse in the Venezuelan border town of San Antonio del Táchira.

Updated April 4, 2023 at 8:56 AM ET

SAN ANTONIO DEL TÁCHIRA, Venezuela — At a warehouse in this Venezuelan border town, customs officials inspect tractor trailers loaded with imports from neighboring Colombia. It's rather mundane cargo — detergent, tobacco, crates of mayonnaise — but warehouse owner Emilio Gutiérrez is thrilled.

The warehouse had been shuttered for seven years amid diplomatic disputes between Colombia and Venezuela that led to frequent border closures. As cargo traffic dwindled, a cash-strapped Gutiérrez joined an exodus of 2.5 million Venezuelans who resettled in Colombia.

Last year, however, Colombia began mending fences with Venezuela's authoritarian government. Border posts have reopened and Gutiérrez, who returned to San Antonio del Táchira in February, reopened his business.

"I decided to go all in," Gutiérrez says. "I believe we will once again become one of the busiest border crossings in Latin America."

Neighbors with rocky relations

Indeed, the border here used to be a throbbing commercial hub, with long lines of trucks waiting to clear customs. At its peak in 2007, trade between Colombia and Venezuela topped $7 billion, according to the Colombian trade ministry.

But diplomatic and commercial relations broke down as Venezuela's president, Nicolás Maduro, cracked down on the country's democracy. His regime attacked protesters, jailed dissidents, muzzled the press and held fraud-marred elections.

Following the lead of the Trump administration in 2019, Colombia and about 50 other countries recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela's rightful head of state. The campaign for regime change included a massive "Live Aid"-style outdoor concert staged on the border, where big-name Latin American bands rocked the crowd and called for Maduro to step down.

But Maduro remained in power while Venezuelan troops used cargo containers to block border bridges. That forced people to cross the frontier on smuggling trails where they were sometimes kidnapped, robbed or raped by criminals. Formal trade shrank to about $300 million in 2021, though contraband still moved back and forth.

"The drop in trade was just extraordinary," says Luis Fernando Mejía, director of Fedesarrollo, an economic think tank in Colombia's capital of Bogotá. "Now, Venezuela doesn't even rank among Colombia's top-20 trade partners."

Thousands of people were thrown out of work, says Sandra Guzmán, who runs a customs brokerage house in Cúcuta, a Colombian city just across the border from San Antonio del Táchira. There used to be 68 such businesses in Cúcuta to deal with the constant flow of imports and exports, but now there are only five.

"Everything was shut down," she says.

Colombia's new leftist leader reengaged

That's why Guzmán supports the open-door policy of Gustavo Petro, Colombia's left-wing president elected last year. Ignoring the Maduro government's abuses, Petro quickly moved to reestablish diplomatic relations and jumpstart trade.

"We may have an ugly dance partner," Guzmán says, referring to Maduro, "but we still have to dance with him."

Colombian President Gustavo Petro (left) and his Venezuelan counterpart Nicolás Maduro shake hands during a meeting at the Tienditas International Bridge in Cúcuta, Colombia, on Feb. 16.
Ferley Ospina / Bloomberg via Getty Images
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Bloomberg via Getty Images
Colombian President Gustavo Petro (left) and his Venezuelan counterpart Nicolás Maduro shake hands during a meeting at the Tienditas International Bridge in Cúcuta, Colombia, on Feb. 16.

Other countries have come to the same conclusion. Last year, the United States announced it was easing some of the tough oil sanctions it placed on Venezuela in 2019, while the European Union in 2021 announced it would longer recognize Guaidó as the country's head of state. In December, Venezuela's opposition stripped Guaidó of that role.

For Colombia, mending fences could help boost the economy, reactivate trade and improve security along the nearly 1,400-mile-long border with Venezuela, parts of which are controlled by drug trafficking groups and guerrilla fighters.

"There was a big increase in contraband and human trafficking when the border was closed," Luis Felipe Quintero, Colombia's deputy trade minister, told NPR. In renewing ties to Venezuela "we have humanitarian goals. We want to create jobs and fight poverty."

Venezuela's foreign trade ministry did not respond to NPR's requests for comment. But following a March 16 meeting in Caracas, Maduro and Petro signed a bilateral trade agreement and issued a statement calling for "the promotion of integration, development and economic equilibrium" between the two countries.

Quintero predicted that trade with Venezuela could hit $4 billion by the end of the Petro's presidential term in 2026.

For now, however, there's just a trickle.

Venezuela's shrinking exports

Due to corruption, mismanagement and sanctions, Venezuela's economy shrank about 75% between 2014 and 2021, leaving it too poor to import very much. In addition, thousands of Venezuelan businesses have gone bankrupt so, besides oil, there's not much that it exports.

Venezuela's currency, the bolívar, is badly devalued, while U.S. sanctions have deterred some Colombian exporters from dealing with state-run companies in Venezuela or its central bank. Instead, Colombian companies receive payment in U.S. dollars through third countries, like Panama, which adds to transaction costs. Another problem is that inside Venezuela, National Guard troops at highway checkpoints often pressure truckers for payoffs.

The lack of cross-border trade is evident at the main bridge between Colombia and Venezuela, where traffic is light.
/ John Otis for NPR
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John Otis for NPR
The lack of cross-border trade is evident at the main bridge between Colombia and Venezuela, where traffic is light.

"There are something like 14 checkpoints where they demand bribes," says Javier Díaz, president of ANALDEX, Colombia's largest foreign trade association. "That's why some companies are deciding that they'd rather not export to Venezuela."

The lack of commerce is evident at the main bridge between Colombia and Venezuela. Built by both countries, the massive, six-lane structure was completed in 2016 and designed to be the main cargo hub between the two countries. For years it sat empty due to the border disputes until finally opening in January. Yet during a half-hour visit to the bridge, traffic consisted of just a few motorcycles and taxis.

Back at the warehouse on the Venezuelan side, Gutiérrez acknowledges that it's been slow going but says he's just happy to be back in his homeland running his business — even if it's just a fraction of the size it once was.

"We used to be closed 24/7," he says. "So, imagine the optimism that I feel now. Just look at the cargo trucks out there. That means we're growing."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

John Otis
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