CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela said on Thursday it would extend an overnight closure of its border with neighboring Colombia for another three months in a campaign to stop widespread fuel and food smuggling.
The measures to stop traffic crossing between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., and limit the movement of cargo vehicles during the day, were introduced in mid-August to combat the lucrative business in smuggling heavily subsidized Venezuelan products.
“We are going to pursue and punish smugglers with double severity,” President Nicolas Maduro said, announcing the three-month extension. “They are looting the republic.”
Venezuela’s gasoline is the cheapest in the world, and many other goods from cooking oil to corn flour are sold with large discounts in state stores, enabling thousands to live off a thriving contraband trade along the border with Colombia.
Maduro said 512 people had been arrested since the anti-smuggling campaign began last month, and thanked Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ government for its cooperation.
Opposition parties say Maduro should first tackle alleged collusion between Venezuela’s armed forces and the smugglers.
Some economists contend the large price disparities between the cost of goods in Venezuela and neighboring countries mean the latest measures are unlikely to have a long-term impact on the smuggling problem.
Subsidies on products, first introduced in late socialist leader Hugo Chavez’s 14-year presidency until 2013, are hugely popular among Venezuelans.
Despite Maduro’s thanks, Colombia’s Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin has criticized Venezuela’s measures as “unilateral” and unlikely to control contraband along the 2,219 km (1,378 miles) of border.
Reporting by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Ken Wills