Border reopening between Colombia and Venezuela, a new step in relations between neighbors

Colombia and Venezuela reopened their border closed for seven years, mostly because of political differences. The election of left-wing Gustavo Petro to Colombia’s presidency started a change in diplomatic relations with Venezuela.

Colombian President Gustavo Petro and Venezuelan Minister of Transportation Ramon Araguayan
Colombian President Gustavo Petro (center) and Venezuelan Minister of Transportation Ramon Araguayan (right) on September 26, 2022 | © Presidencia de Colombia

Colombia and Venezuela reopened their 2,219-kilometer border to cargo trucks on September 26. The border was partially closed for four years and completely shut down for another three years.

The president of Colombia, Gustavo Petro, and the minister of Transport of Venezuela, Ramón Araguayan, met at the Simón Bolívar Bridge during the reopening ceremony on Monday. Joining the northeastern Colombian department Norte de Santander and the Venezuelan state Táchira, the bridge is the main land connection between the two neighbors. The presence of Colombia’s president was announced only a few hours before by the presidency.

A flight from the small Venezuelan airline Turpial on September 26 also marked the reopening of the Caracas-Bogotá route. Until September 23, the state-owned Venezuelan company Conviasa was supposed to operate the first flight but the company is still on a list of the United States that would have implied a series of sanctions. Twenty-seven flights between Venezuela and Colombia are planned until the end of the year.

Air and road connections reopening marks a shift in the relations between Colombia and Venezuela, and are the first steps to “reestablish fraternal relations,” said Mr. Petro.

A former guerillero, Gustavo Petro became the first left-wing politician elected President of Colombia on June 19. Mr. Petro pledged he would improve relations with Venezuela and “normalize” the situation at the border during his campaign.

Gustavo Petro and Nicolás Maduro, the leader of Venezuela’s regime, had an official phone conversation three days after his election, in which both agreed to reopen consulates. They appointed ambassadors in August. Bogotá and Caracas then simultaneously announced on September 9 the plan to reopen the 2,219-kilometer common border, and assured that the air connection, suspended since the COVID-19 pandemic, would also resume.

Simón Bolívar Bridge at the border of Venezuela and Colombia
Simón Bolívar Bridge during the border reopening ceremony between Venezuela and Colombia on September 26 | © Presidencia de Colombia

Diplomatic relations between Venezuela and Colombia were suspended since 2019

Today is a historic day for the country, for the region and for South America. For America, in general,” said President Petro in his speech. Nicolás Maduro wrote on Twitter that “the reopening of the border between Colombia and Venezuela is undoubtedly a historic event that marks the beginning of a new step of relations of fraternity, respect and peace. We are people united by the unbreakable bond of Bolivarianism.”

Nicolás Maduro decided to partially close the border in August 2015 arguing the fight against smugglers, drug trafficking and paramilitary. Opposition leader Juan Guaidó also tried to bring humanitarian aid from the United States through Colombia during violent political unrest, which Mr. Maduro considered was a plot to seize power with armed forces.

Former Colombian president Iván Duque, a strong opponent to Maduro’s regime, recognized Mr. Guaidó as the “president in charge” of Venezuela that year. Mr. Petro considers Mr. Guaidó a “non-existent” president who has no power in the country and has recognized Mr. Maduro as the legitimate leader of Venezuela.

Juan Guaidó’s opposition group since 2019 managed assets of Monómeros, a petrochemical subsidiary of the state-owned Petróleos de Venezuela, located in Colombia because he was considered the president in charge. Armando Benedetti, the new Colombian ambassador to Venezuela, announced last week Monómeros assets would return to the hands of Maduro’s regime.

The border however was porous all these years with people smuggling goods or crossing through fields and rivers. Facing strong economic, health and political crises, Venezuela has seen a mass forced exodus of its population since 2015, especially toward Colombia, which also created an opportunity for human traffickers. As a consequence, closing the border left more room for criminals and armed groups and proved to foster illegal activities, according to Colombian authorities. “Hopefully the mass migration that has been coming from Venezuela […] can be calm now,” said Mr. Petro. About 1.8 million Venezuelans, almost half undocumented, have left their country for Colombia.

From June 2021 after the pandemic, the border partially reopened to people on foot but still with restrictions and schedules.

Colombian president hopes it will generate 4 billion dollars in trade across the border by the end of his mandate in four years, and then in the medium term get to 8 billion dollars, close to levels recorded in 2008 according to the Colombian-Venezuelan Chamber of Integration (CAVECOL).

Tienditas bridge, much larger than Simón Bolívar bridge, is expected to be renovated within weeks. The border should also open to passenger vehicles soon.

Read more about Colombia

Statement by Colombia President Gustavo Petro, YouTube, September 2022

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