By Geraldine Garcia
The Colombian city of Cucuta is counting down the days until the full reopening of the border with Venezuela, a campaign promise of leftist President-elect Gustavo Petro that he is expected to fulfill after taking office on Aug. 7.
The capital of the northeastern department of Norte de Santander is the main crossing point on that 2,219-kilometer (1,380-mile) stretch of border, which had been Colombia’s most active in terms of trade flows until political animosity caused those bi-national links to slow to a trickle.
The border was closed to legal vehicular traffic in August 2015 by leftist Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who severed relations with Colombia in February 2019.
But the election of Petro, a former guerrilla who has vowed to normalize relations with the socialist government in Caracas, figures to mark the start of a new era. “This can’t happen again. We’ve gone seven years with a border that’s distorted and different to what we once knew,” the president of the Interguild Association of Norte de Santander, Carlos Luna said.
Three years ago, the business associations of Norte de Santander and the northwestern Venezuelan state of Tachira started coordinating actions in anticipation of the full reopening of the border, which at present is only passable by foot at hours determined by the Venezuelan authorities, Luna said.
One of the accomplishments of those contacts was to “get people off the ‘trochas’ (illegal trails normally used by smugglers and drug traffickers) and allow them to cross the bridge,” where Venezuelan pedestrians, documents in hand, can walk to Cucuta in search of provisions and services that are unavailable in their homeland.
After cars and truckers were prohibited from crossing the Simon Bolivar International Bridge, the main border crossing in that region, Venezuelans would have to risk their lives to cross the Tachira River and pay armed groups and smugglers who controlled those clandestine routes. “It was unfair that millions of people had to cross the river, via illegal trails, because of political differences between Bogota and Caracas. A lot of people were killed, were victims of extortion, went missing,” Luna added.
Among the Venezuelans enthusiastic about the pledged border reopening is Wilson Roberto Vadillo, who lives in San Antonio del Tachira and uses the Simon Bolivar bridge daily to reach Cucuta and stock up on food. “People who had left Venezuela are coming back to reopen their businesses, and there are great expectations with the news of the reopening,” Vadillo said.
Besides the Simon Bolivar crossing that links Cucuta with San Antonio del Tachira, the two countries also are connected by a pair of bridges (Francisco de Paula Santander and Tienditas) between Cucuta and Ureña and another (Union) linking Puerto Santander, Colombia, and Boca de Grita, Venezuela.
The region’s inhabitants are particularly hopeful about the opening of the Tienditas bridge, (also known as the Unidad bridge), an overpass with three lanes in each direction that was completed in 2016 at a cost of $36 million but has yet to enter into service.
“Tienditas is important because of its infrastructure and its ability to handle both cargo and private vehicles, as well as people entering the metropolitan area,” the border secretary in Norte de Santander, Victor Bautista, said.
In terms of trade, the official said he expects it will increase gradually and steadily and fully return to pre-2015 levels in a period of up to 90 days. “The authority and decision-making rests with the national government, but the region wants a rapid and comprehensive opening that encompasses not only the mobility of people and private and cargo vehicles, but also all freedom of movement so it can contribute to economic reactivation,” Bautista said.
Leonardo Mendez, a cargo trucker, recalled that “some 400 vehicles had once entered Venezuela every day and some 200 arrived in Colombia,” but that with the border closure that activity came to a halt and now people are eagerly waiting for it to resume. “We have the productivity that Venezuela needs; in terms of agriculture, we have rice, beans, sorghum, palm and sugarcane, as well as medical and manufacturing goods. The idea is that they also reactivate, and send (products) our way just as we’re going to be shipping to them,” he said.
Credit: La Prensa Latina