SAN JUAN DE CORON, Venezuela (AP) — The trucking company owned by Alfredo Rosales and his brothers is busy, with its 50 or so trucks constantly hauling about 100 trucks down the road. Thousands of tons of coal, cement, flour and other commodities are transported commercially between Venezuela and Colombia each year.
Their work came to an abrupt halt in 2015, when Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government closed border crossings with the neighbouring country after years of sour relations with Colombia’s conservative government.
“When they closed the border, we had nowhere to go to work. … It hurt us badly,” Rosales watched on Thursday from the family’s quiet five-acre truck warehouse in the San Juan de Colón neighborhood of western Venezuela. Shi said the community is located on a plateau with views of lush mountains. They only have a few trucks now, the rest are sold out, some are junk.
However, optimism began to spill over to the border, as leftist Gustavo Petro took office as Colombia’s president on Sunday, promising to normalize relations with Maduro. Colombia’s incoming foreign ministers and Venezuela’s foreign ministers announced in late July that the border would gradually reopen after the two countries resumed diplomatic relations.
“That’s what’s left, hopefully to get to work,” Rosales said.
Despite these hopes, business owners and residents in the area know that meaningful crossover vehicle activity will not resume overnight. Venezuela’s economic woes have worsened in the years following the closure of border trade, with more than 6 million people leaving to seek a better life, mainly in Latin America and the Caribbean, and some 1.8 million migrating to Colombia.
Colombia and Venezuela share a border of approximately 1,370 miles (2,700 kilometers). Bandits, drug dealers, paramilitary groups and guerrillas use remote and desolate lands to operate, although this did not stop trade before the shutdown.
Goods continue to enter Venezuela illegally via dirt roads passed by armed groups and others with the support of officials on both sides of the border. Likewise, illegal imports are entering Colombia, but on a smaller scale.
On Saturday, men dragged large quantities of soft drinks, bananas, cooking oil, specialty paper, scrap metal and other items with carts, bicycles, motorcycles and their own backs along an illegal road that had been rained into mud.
However, sanctioned trade will flow at a higher rate.
Despite the long border, all but two official border crossings between Venezuela and Colombia are concentrated within a 45-mile (75-kilometer) radius, and the region handled 60 percent of the borders between neighboring countries before the closure business activities. The country’s northernmost bridge is about 330 miles away, and Venezuela continues to allow some cargo to pass there.
“The expectations are very positive, and we have been waiting for that to happen,” said Luis Russián, president of the Venezuela-Colombia Economic Integration Chamber, which expects the agriculture, pharmaceuticals and hygiene sectors to be among the first to benefit from the reopening. “We think this is a new chapter that will be written between Venezuela and Colombia.”
Russia says 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 is now about half.
Food, cleaning products, auto parts, chemicals and countless other commodities used to travel between the two countries. Business was strong even in the early days of Venezuela’s socialist government, when the country’s petrodollars allowed businesses to import a variety of goods. Those relations were strained when Venezuela’s economic downturn left businesses unable to make payments and access lines of credit.
Commercial transactions, which reached $2.4 billion in 2014, fell to about $406 million last year, with $331 million imported from Colombia, according to the Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce. The group estimates that activity could reach $800 million this year if borders remain closed, but could be as high as $1.2 billion if border crossings reopen to vehicles.
The Venezuelan government estimates that business transactions could exceed $4 billion within a year of the full reopening of the border.
“This will create jobs, wealth, productive opportunities, commercial exchanges,” said Jesús Faría, chairman of the Standing Committee on Economic, Financial and Social Development of the Venezuelan National Assembly.
Unlike outgoing President Ivan Duque, Petro has expressed a willingness to improve relations with Venezuela. After Maduro was re-elected in 2018, Duque and dozens of other countries no longer recognized him as Venezuela’s legitimate leader. Duque has backed economic sanctions imposed on Venezuela by the United States and the European Union, and has repeatedly accused Maduro of protecting some Colombian rebels.
However, it is not only the relationship that needs to be repaired before trailers, tankers and other large vehicles can resume movement between the two countries.
On the Venezuelan side, roads leading to the border are in disrepair and bridges are not maintained. One span even wobbled when pedestrians pushed particularly heavy loads onto the trolley. A bridge that had not opened before closing was still blocked by a dozen shipping containers and concrete barricades.
Truckers in Venezuela do not have a license and stop paying when business dwindles. Their counterparts in Colombia want safety and security. Business owners in Venezuela hope they can somehow arrange financing as banks stop lending due to runaway inflation and other economic problems in the country.
It’s not just big companies looking to get back into trade. Self-employed and small business owners want normal cross-border vehicular traffic to resume.
That includes Janet Delgado, who sells clothes in Venezuela and then Colombia and walks about twice a week.
When she’s only shopping for a few clothes, she uses a collapsible grocery cart. But like many other merchants, if she needed to carry a lot of goods, she would cross through one of the illegal roads, moving between them for less than the bribe she would have to pay to bring the clothes home. Official border crossing.
“It would be helpful if they stopped charging us,” she said, referring to the bribe. “I brought two bags and they thought one was a millionaire. (Vehicle traffic) was good for me and the others. I brought some things, but others brought more.”