Venezuela-Colombia border reopens to trade as tensions ease

People along the shared border hope the reopening of border crossings to cargo will boost the economy after a years-long closure.

A Venezuelan cargo truck adorned with Venezuelan flags and balloons crosses the Simon Bolivar International Bridge into Colombia
The reopening comes after the leaders of Colombia and Venezuela announced plans to restore diplomatic relations after years of tensions [Fernando Vergara/AP Photo]

Trucks loaded with aluminum and medications have crossed a bridge linking Colombia and Venezuela for the first time in seven years, as the neighbouring countries continue to mend relations after years of political conflict.

The border reopening – which will see goods like coal, toilet paper and fruit moved through crossings between the Colombian city of Cucuta and the Venezuelan state of Tachira – was a key campaign promise of Colombia’s new left-wing President Gustavo Petro.

Petro arrived at Simon Bolivar International Bridge, one of the main crossings that connects the two countries, for a ceremony on Monday morning, Al Jazeera’s Alessandro Rampietti reported from the bridge.

“Obviously this means a lot symbolically; symbolically [it] shows the end of this … sort of cold war that has existed between Colombia and Venezuela for a number of years now,” Rampietti said, adding that many hope the resumption of trade will improve the economic situation in the area.

“We’ve seen the first trucks crossing with cargo from Venezuela into Colombia, and vice-versa. There is great expectation for what this will mean for this region, after years of icy relationships, after years of very, very restricted economic activity, and in a situation where much of the goods that moved through this border did so illegally.”

The reopening comes weeks after Petro and his Venezuelan counterpart President Nicolas Maduro announced that they planned to restore diplomatic relations, which were severed in 2019.

Petro has said he will recognise Maduro and work with the Venezuelan government on several issues, including fighting rebel groups along the porous border between the nations.

“May the opening of the border usher in prosperity for Colombia, Venezuela and all of the Americas,” Petro tweeted on Monday. Maduro also wrote on Twitter that the reopening marked the beginning of a new stage in bilateral ties based on “brotherhood, respect and peace”.

Commercial flights between the countries will also resume soon, potentially enabling billions of dollars in trade after years of icy bilateral relations and heavily-restricted economic ties. Caracas and Bogota also have announced intentions to restore military relations.

On Monday, four trucks from company Transporte Condor were loaded with toilet paper, plastic glasses, medical supplies and textiles to cross early from Cucuta. The goods, weighing 120 tonnes, are valued at some $80,000, manager Diego Bohorquez said.

The border has already been opened to pedestrians, with many Venezuelans crossing to buy basic goods amid their country’s long-running economic crisis. Cargo transport had previously only been allowed through one northern crossing.

The frontier has long been home to dozens of irregular crossings, fuel and food smuggling and drug trafficking. And the closures have not ended the transportation of various goods – including some over dirt roads by armed groups – into Venezuela. Criminal groups also have used the roads for trafficking operations.

Merchants on both sides of the 2,219km (1,379-mile) border have been eagerly awaiting the normalisation since Petro’s June election, hopeful open trade will allow them access to raw materials and new customers.

Trade between the two countries could total more than $600m this year, the Colombian government has said. It totalled $7bn in 2008, before Venezuela’s then-president Hugo Chavez froze it to protest a Bogota-Washington military deal.

People along the border have expressed the hope that the reopening will bring in much-needed commerce to the region.

“It will be something very positive for both countries, Colombia and Venezuela,” said Michael, a Venezuelan man who only gave The Associated Press his first name, who was crossing the Simon Bolivar bridge between the two countries on Sunday.

“The borders will open, there will be more commerce. And I hope that in a few months, it will also open for private cars. There will be more jobs.”

In 2015, the smuggling of cheap, subsidised goods from Venezuela into Colombia skyrocketed. This was followed by an incident where three Venezuelan soldiers were killed, apparently by smugglers, after which Maduro ordered the closure of legal crossing points.

In 2019, Caracas broke off relations with Bogota after Venezuelan opposition activists tried to send aid trucks from Colombia. Maduro’s government said it was a front for an attempted coup.

Colombia has previously accused Venezuela of offering assistance and shelter to armed groups in the border region, a claim bolstered by a report by Human Rights Watch in March.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies