CARACAS (Reuters) - The Venezuela-Colombia border will be reopened gradually, the presidents of the two countries announced on Thursday, speaking side-by-side in Venezuela’s southeastern state of Bolivar.
The news signaled a warming of relations between the neighboring countries after Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro formally closed the border at this time a year ago in what he called a crackdown on smugglers and paramilitary groups.
“We’re interested in a new beginning in economic and commercial relations with all of Colombia’s productive sectors,” said Maduro, seated next to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in front of a picture of Latin American independence hero Simon Bolivar, who dreamed of integrating the region.
The porous border has long been a haven for smuggling of everything from Venezuela’s price-controlled toothpaste and pasta to illegal drugs and weapons.
Santos said bilateral talks in preparation for opening the border had gone on for months and that both countries would guarantee security and help curb smuggling.
The border will be opened at five crossing points during the day from Saturday.
Venezuela is in the midst of a severe economic crisis, with triple-digit inflation leaving many hungry and standing in lines for hours every day for basic staples. Food riots and looting have become commonplace and the country’s violent crime rate is one of the world’s highest.
Maduro has blamed the problems on Colombians, among others, sparking a major falling out between the two countries before the border’s closure. Yet some observers saw the move as nothing more than a political stunt by Maduro.
Hundreds of Colombians waded back home across a border river with appliances, mattresses and even chickens on their backs last August, saying they had been forced from their rickety wooden or corrugated metal homes, scared of what might happen next if they stayed in Venezuela.
Within weeks, the cross-border smuggling was back in force. While the primary routes were heavily guarded, river and jungle crossings opened up and many said they simply paid border guards a little extra to make the crossing.
Reporting by Girish Gupta and Corina Pons; Writing by Girish Gupta, editing by G Crosse