The announcement of the reopening of the border with Venezuela made by the newly elected president of Colombia, Gustavo Petro, has caused enormous satisfaction among the businessmen of both countries, especially the border ones, and has been taken as a great gesture by the Government Chavista of Nicolás Maduro. A piece of news that has been awaited for a long time by the business sectors and the binational economic swarm, which have tried to persuade local authorities to lift mutual restrictions, is materialized. At the same time, the measure provides an additional dose of oxygen to a government still besieged by international sanctions.
The normalization of relations with Venezuela was something that all the Colombian candidates carried in their programs. That step has been taken by Petro and the same would have happened with Rodolfo Hernández, who made a lot of emphasis on returning to dialogue with Caracas. It was also a proposal from the center’s candidate, Sergio Fajardo, and even Fico Gutiérrez, the option on the right, spoke of a commercial reopening. There was consensus that a thaw had to be achieved between two sister nations. Of course, Petro sent a clear message by speaking first with the president of the United States, and later, after having done so with a string of Latin American leaders, getting on the phone with Nicolás Maduro.
The two nations’ porous border has been intermittently closed since August 2015, following a decision by Caracas. It was the culmination of a growing tension between Maduro and Colombian presidents Juan Manuel Santos and Iván Duque. The border crossings of the state of Táchira with the department of Norte de Santander, on the San Cristóbal-Cúcuta axis, which carry the majority of binational trade, have been closed for several years for vehicles – today there is a pedestrian crossing, which at other times has been restricted –. President Duque was very active in trying to create a “diplomatic fence” over Venezuela that would end in the overthrow of Maduro. He even said, with an epic tone, that Maduro had hours of dictatorship left when the figure of Juan Guaidó emerged as an alternative president. That route has turned out to be a failure.
The measure announced by Petro seems the portal to determine the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries, an unusual circumstance after seven years of bad feelings. It is insistently commented that the Colombian airline Avianca plans to resume its regular flights to Caracas in a few months. “This distancing, the tensions of these years, the fact of not having consulates or embassies, distance the formal commercial relationship between both countries. Trade is not done in the air,” says Luis Alberto Russián, president of the Venezuelan-Colombian Chamber of Commerce, Cavecol, for whom the measure is excellent news.
“The establishment of formal trade lowers transaction costs, the purchase of inputs between both countries. We have to work to resume channels, to earn trust again. Here the population wins, and this measure poses a challenge to the national productive sector”. The manager recalls that, in 2008, the commercial relationship on the Colombian-Venezuelan border reported amounts close to 7.3 billion dollars a year, and that in a recessive and pandemic year like 2020, this figure was reduced to just 224 million dollars. in the midst of a massive diaspora of Venezuelans to Colombian lands. “In 2021 it raised 404 million dollars, and this year it may be around 800 million.”
There are sections of the border between the two countries that are actually a single nation. There are thousands of citizens who are neither from here nor there, but from both places. “The opening of the border contributes to the reactivation, it allows the border population to return to their daily lives,” says Russián. “Táchira, in Venezuela, and Norte de Santander, in Colombia, are two complementary states, related, almost twins, their activities are designed for both markets.” He affirms that sectors such as textiles, auto parts production, glass and plastic production, agriculture and livestock could see a small revival in Venezuela after years of contraction and devastation in a context of border closure.
Giovana de Michele, an internationalist and academic at the Central University of Venezuela, believes that the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries is imminent. “The reopening of the border has its advantages, one of them being the fact that what is legal confronts and extinguishes what is illegal. Smuggling and illicit activities have gained a lot of space after the border closure. The bad thing is that Venezuela has destroyed the productive apparatus, it does not have the capacity to put all its products in Colombia. An opening of the border must have additional measures to promote and protect investments and legal certainty.” Usually favorable to Venezuela until 1999, the trade balance between the two nations is totally in favor of Colombia during the records of the last 20 years.
“The opening of the border will mean greater dynamism in the trade of goods, fundamentally in food, supplies and pieces-parts for agriculture and industry,” observes economist Rodrigo Cabezas, former finance minister and academic at the University of Zulia. “It is obvious that Colombian economic activity will benefit much more than the local one, which has been destroyed by Maduro and is not competitive.”
“That is a long process,” Petro warned about the reopening of the border in statements to the press. “Normalizing relationships doesn’t happen overnight,” she noted. The idea is that the surrounding trade will increase and benefit both nations. “It is logical to think that the opening of the border with Colombia will bring benefits to the entire local economy,” says Omar Zambrano, an economist and professor at the Andrés Bello Catholic University. “It may be early to have round figures. The normalization of the flow of goods, people, labor zones that are integrated between the two countries is the most important. It would be necessary to see how it faces the economic mafias, gasoline smuggling, the criminal groups in the area, which have proliferated in this context of closure.
“Petro may have an initially timid approach to Maduro,” says De Michele, who believes that little by little the rapprochement will deepen. The president-elect has been changing his positions from the dogmatic left to some more focused ones. In the campaign he has avoided talking about Cuba and Venezuela to put the accent on relations with Chile and Brazil, in the event that he wins Lula to create a progressive South American axis. That fear about Petro has spread so much that not even his rivals have thrown it in his face this time. His intention, at least that is how he has expressed it, is to normalize relations with a sister country that did not exist until now due to diplomatic conflicts. Petro wishes to have an approach to Venezuela similar to that of the Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Historically, Mexico practices the principle of non-intervention in the internal politics of other countries.