October 23, 2016

Venezuela to Reopen Colombia Border

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, right, and Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos met in Puerto Ordaz in Venezuela on Thursday. Mr. Maduro announced the opening of the five main pedestrian crossings along the countries’ shared border.

CARACAS, Venezuela—President Nicolás Maduro said he would reopen the country’s 1,400 mile-long border with Colombia on Saturday after a year of isolation failed to bring promised improvements in food supply and security.

Mr. Maduro announced the opening of the five main pedestrian crossings after meeting his Colombian counterpart, Juan Manuel Santos, in the eastern city of Puerto Ordaz. Cars should be able to cross the border within a month with more crossings opening gradually over the coming year, the presidents said.

The move is a striking volte-face for the Venezuelan president, who had blamed the deepest economic crisis in the country’s modern history on a “plague” of Colombian smugglers, immigrants and criminals. Economists say that while the open border will reduce social tensions on Venezuelan frontier by improving supply, it does nothing to address the currency and price controls at the root of the economic crisis.

Last August, Mr. Maduro sent soldiers to deport thousands of Colombians from their homes on the border, once South America’s busiest, blaming them for smuggling out foodstuffs and fuel and speculating in the local bolivar currency.

“All this plague has infested our fatherland,” he said last year.  “I won’t open this border until there are minimum conditions of respect for Venezuela.”

Since then, however, food shortages have worsened, triggering outbreaks of looting across the country. The bolivar has lost a third of its value against the dollar on the black market since the border’s closure and the economy is set to contract by 10% this year.

Around 150,000 Venezuelans rushed to the Colombian border city of Cúcuta last month to buy food and hygiene products after the governments of the two countries opened the border for two weekends.

“The closure of the border has been a total disaster,” said Anabella Abadi, an economist with ODH Grupo Consultor in Caracas. “It hasn’t changed anything for the country as a whole or even for the border states. In fact, things have gotten worse.”

Venezuelans in the border regions rejoiced at the opening. For some, crossing illegally into Colombia had become the only way to obtain scarce medicine, food and car parts.

“The open border would be a godsend,” said William Valero, a water seller from the town of Capacho in the border state of Táchira. “I’ll make the trip every week, no matter the prices, because you can’t find anything here.”

Buying supplies from abroad is not easy in a country where an average monthly wage equates to around $40 at free-market exchange rates.

Middle-class families say they plan to shop weekly in Cucuta using dollar savings. Working-class residents expect to scrape together enough money for basic necessities by reselling Venezuelan gasoline, the world’s cheapest, across the border.

Venezuelan farmers and businessmen also welcomed the opening. A decade of currency controls has left them without access to dollars to import raw materials and seeds, forcing them to source supplies at black market rates in Colombia. Last year’s border closure had removed the last supply channel, causing production to plummet.

Venezuelan factories now produce at a quarter of capacity, according to industrial chamber Conindustria. In the agricultural Andes region, around 65% of arable land was left fallow this year because of lack of seeds and fertilizer, said agribusiness lobby Fedeagro.

“Going to Colombia to buy inputs was our only way to plant something in the past,” said Fedeagro head Tony Pestana.

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