1657029849 Colombian businessmen return to Venezuela

Colombian businessmen return to Venezuela

Pedestrian crossing on the Simón Bolívar International Bridge between Cúcuta and San Antonio del Táchira, on July 1, 2022.Pedestrian crossing on the Simón Bolívar International Bridge between Cúcuta and San Antonio del Táchira, on July 1, 2022. Santiago Mesa

The expected commercial reopening of the border between Colombia and Venezuela is imminent. A month after Gustavo Petro took office as president, on August 7, relations between the two countries, which have been shattered since 2019, are already experiencing a kind of thaw. Colombian businessmen held it this Monday in San Cristóbal on the Venezuelan side, where they returned as they had not done in a long time. Its purpose was to reflect the outcry of communities on both sides to restore passage after years of irreconcilable differences during Iván Duque’s government.

It took Petro just days as President-elect to speak with Nicolás Maduro and confirm that he intends to open a porous border that has long been ruled by illegality. For his part, the Venezuelan has shown his willingness to ‘restore normalcy’. The convergences of different sectors happened faster than expected.

The Border Agreement meeting attended by EL PAÍS was organized by Venezuela’s largest employers’ association, Fedecamaras, through its section office in the state of Táchira, together with the Interunion Committee of Norte de Santander. “We have to make up for lost time,” demanded one of the hosts, Carlos Luna, President of the Interunion Committee, in his speech. The two countries share a border more than 2,200 kilometers long, the scene of successive diplomatic crises. The message for this Monday, Luna stressed, is to restore the routines of frontier living so that it stops creating fear, uncertainty and anxiety, so that it becomes a frontier of possibility again.

The crossing has been closed to the passage of vehicles forced to cross the Táchira River with their waxes since August 2015, by order of Maduro, who had previously displaced thousands of Colombians. These tensions have escalated since February 2019 due to the failed attempt by the Venezuelan opposition, led by Juan Guaidó, to get food and medicine across the border bridges. Maduro described this episode as an “invasion attempt” and decided to cut ties entirely, while Duque was the main promoter of the “diplomatic siege” of Hugo Chávez’s heir.

The motley Colombian delegation, more than 60 people, including politicians, businessmen and union leaders, had been meeting at the mouth of the Francisco de Paula Santander International Bridge in Cúcuta since morning, all with their rosettes around their necks, to cross the bridge together . On the other side, they boarded the two buses that, escorted by members of the Bolivarian National Army, entered some roads that wind through the mountains to more than 50 kilometers that separate the border from San Cristóbal, the capital 500 meters of altitude to climb in the state of Táchira, one of the Andean cities of Caribbean Venezuela.

Through the windows passed installations and landscapes that were once familiar to the people of Cúcuta but are now only distant memories. They looked through the windows at the Táchira sugar factory, originally owned by Colombian businessmen and expropriated by the Chávez government in 2010, or at the Juan Vicente Gómez Airport in San Antonio del Táchira, which has been closed for nine years. Also the exit on the Venezuelan side of the Tienditas International Bridge, a modern facility whose time has finally come.

Already in the Lidotel of San Cristóbal, a city where everything can be paid for in Colombian pesos, the speeches followed one another full of optimism and fueled expectations of the new era that begins with Petro’s assumption of power. “Starting August 8, the border between two sister cities will be fully open and never closed again,” proclaimed Gabriel Becerra, who was elected to Congress by the Historic Pact, the left-wing coalition that now has the largest bank. “We do the integration to improve social indicators,” claimed economist Germán Umaña Mendoza, president of the Colombo-Venezuelan Chamber and part of the joint team, referring to the high unemployment and poverty in Cúcuta. He agreed that the shipment of goods will take place on August 8, the day after the seizure. Petro himself – on holiday in Europe – has so far been more cautious, warning that “the normalization of relations will not happen overnight”.

Among Venezuelans, the pivotal speech was that of Táchira Governor Freddy Bernal, who jubilantly acknowledged that it was a symbolic event but the message for both countries was clear. “Even though the border was officially closed, it was never completely closed,” he said, because “it’s impossible to close it.” In his words, he fired several darts at President Duque, whom he, with his unwavering support for Guaidó, warned was “playing to start a civil war in Venezuela.” “If Venezuela has managed to grow with an almost total economic siege, new prospects open up,” said Bernal, recalling that the country will grow by 5% this year, according to the forecasts of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. will grow (ECLAC).

On the fringes, all sorts of topics related to business or integration were discussed. From the natural resources that Venezuela possesses to the various long overdue news that now seem to be just around the corner, such as the eventual return of flights operated by Colombian airline Avianca or the opening of the long-awaited Caracas-Cúcuta route. .

“There is not a border Venezuelan in Venezuela who does not agree that the bridges are being opened now. Because people know that if they come back to Cúcuta by car, as they have for years, life will return to normal,” José Fernando Bautista, another of the guests, former Ambassador of Colombia to Caracas and member of the Historic Pact campaign . Remember that there is modern infrastructure like Tienditas that was ready when the border was closed and never came into use. “The only thing that defines us is the political will.”

Tienditas, ten minutes from Cúcuta, is one of the best infrastructures of its kind in Latin America with its huge bonded warehouses and wants to play a central role in the reactivation of the border river. When it was conceived, about 30,000 vehicles crossed between Colombia and Venezuela every day; The other bridges connecting the department of Norte de Santander to the state of Táchira collapsed due to traffic. It has lanes for trucks, cars, pedestrians, and bicycles. The bridge was delivered in mid-2016, when the crisis was already underway.

The Colombia-Venezuelan border became the busiest in Latin America. At its best, trade reached $7,290 million in 2008, but it plummeted to $222 million as the total value of Colombian exports to Venezuela in 2020. As of this year, no percentage of these exports have passed through Venezuela’s customs. Cúcuta as trucks are only allowed to cross at one point in La Guajira in the north of the country. According to some studies by the Colombo-Venezuelan Chamber, legal trade can quickly reach $500 million in the context of reopening. Umaña, the economist who is part of the splicing team, sees that over $4,000 million in activation can be achieved by the end of the four years of the Petro administration.

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