Economy & Trade, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

VENEZUELA-COLOMBIA: ‘Freezing’ of Relations as Seen from the Border

Constanza Vieira

CÚCUTA, Colombia, Nov 26 2007 (IPS) - When this correspondent crossed the border from Venezuela to Colombia at the Venezuelan town of Ureña on the way to Cúcuta, the border post was practically deserted.

There were just three friendly members of the National Guard (a branch of Venezuela’s armed forces), including one Guardswoman, who waved through the dilapidated Venezuelan taxi without any questions.

It was just before nine a.m. on Sunday, and an hour earlier in Colombia. On the Colombian side of the international bridge, there was not a single border agent or other authority.

“How strange,” said the taxi driver, who like so many people in this area holds dual Colombian-Venezuelan nationality. “Over the past month, there have been long lines (of vehicles) every day waiting to cross the border, and there are always many pedestrians crossing the bridge at this time of day. That always happens before Christmas,” he told IPS.

On Sunday morning, the taxi driver had not even heard the news: that leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez said he was putting relations with Colombia “in the freezer,” and that his country would be on the alert for potential military threats from Colombia.

“The Colombian government does not want peace. I am now convinced of that,” he said.

Chávez was alluding to conservative President Álvaro Uribe’s decision last week to abruptly put an end to the Venezuelan leader’s efforts to broker an agreement between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government for a “humanitarian exchange” of 45 to 50 hostages held by the leftwing rebels for as long as 10 years for 400 or 500 imprisoned guerrillas.

Uribe responded that “We will not allow our tragedy to be taken advantage of to incorporate Colombia into an expansionist project that little by little is denying freedoms that this continent has won with so much difficulty.”

The border at Cúcuta, the capital of the northern Colombian department (province) of Norte de Santander, is a hive of activity every day of the week.

On weekdays, trucks can wait up to two days in lines stretching back several kilometres from the San Antonio and Ureña bridges, until they are allowed to cross into Venezuela, where the merchandise they carry is searched and they are charged customs duties.

According to the Colombian truckers’ federation, COLFECAR, between 2,000 and 5,000 tons of goods worth an average of 500,000 dollars move across the border on a daily basis in 500 trucks that compete for bridge space with legal or “pirate” taxis, passenger vans, and private cars.

The San Antonio customs post has space for 20 large trucks. Until the paperwork is complete for the entire batch and their loads are inspected, they are not allowed to continue on their way.

The biggest delays are experienced by trucks carrying new cars assembled in Colombia for sale in oil-rich Venezuela.

Trucks carrying food, especially refrigerated beef and eggs, cross relatively quickly into Venezuela.

The customs post in Ureña is smaller. Vehicles that go through are scanned with a vehicle x-ray inspection system, and the post has a reputation of being quick, for passengers as well.

The headlines are referring to “the worst” bilateral crisis in the history of the two countries.

Exporters in Colombia and importers in Venezuela, whose economy is booming, are worried about the impact on the heavy flows of trade between the two countries, which are major trade partners.

The La Opinión newspaper reported Sunday that things had been quiet at the border posts in Ureña and San Antonio del Táchira, the main border crossing to Cúcuta, since Saturday, even though it was a market day, “because the controls by the Venezuelan border agents have been beefed up,” and “they are not letting anything through.”

The Cúcuta newspaper added that people had decided against coming since they were worried the stiffened controls would make the wait even longer, and because they were afraid their contraband goods, for which this area is famous, would be confiscated.

People in Cúcuta on Monday discussed what the future will hold. They agreed that those living along the border would be hardest hit by the possible effects of the row between Chávez and Uribe, especially those who make a living selling goods on either side of the border, taking advantage of fluctuations in prices.

For example, Venezuelan gasoline is considered the cheapest in the world, while in Colombia fuel is sold at international prices, plus taxes.

But the “pimpineros”, as roadside vendors in Colombia of cheap Venezuelan gasoline are called, said the crisis would not hurt them, because they smuggle the fuel across the border at points where there are no controls.

A roadside juice vendor in Cúcuta told IPS that he thought it a pity that Chávez’s efforts to mediate a prisoner-hostage exchange, “which were going well,” had been cut short.

But a local shopowner called the Venezuelan leader “a crazy man,” an opinion that is widely expressed in the Colombian media.

Many believe that the real state of relations between the two presidents, who are at different ends of the political spectrum, has been finally revealed. Up to now, the presidents’ advisers had depicted them as “friends” who got along well.

In any case, it is unclear how the escalating diplomatic crisis will affect trade between the two countries.

Chávez also said he was “freezing” relations with Spain, whose King Juan Carlos told him to “shut up” during the recent Ibero-American summit in Chile, until the king apologised to him.

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