SAN JUAN DE COLON, Venezuela (AP) — The freight company owned by Alfredo Rosales and his brothers was hustling, its 50 or so trucks constantly on the go hauling about 1 million tons of coal, cement, flour and other goods every year in commerce between Venezuela and Colombia.
Their work came to an abrupt halt in 2015, when the socialist government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro shut down border crossings with its neighbor after years of deterioriating relations with conservative Colombian administrations.
“When they closed the border, we had nowhere to go to work. ... It seriously hurt us,” Rosales said Thursday as he looked over the family's quiet five-acre truck depot in the western Venezuelan community of San Juan de Colon, on a plateau with views of lush mountains. They have only a handful of trucks now, the rest sold off, some for scrap.
Yet optimism is starting to creep into the border area, now that leftist Gustavo Petro is being inaugurated as Colombia's president Sunday promising to normalize relations with Maduro. Colombia's incoming foreign minister and his Venezuelan counterpart announced in late July that the border will gradually reopen after the two nations restore diplomatic ties.
“And this is what remains, hope to start working,” Rosales said.
Despite those hopes, business owners and residents in the region know meaningful vehicular activity across the border will not resume overnight. Venezuela's economic woes have only worsened in the years since border commerce was shut down and more than 6 million people left seeking better lives mostly in Latin America and the Caribbean, with about 1.8 million migrating to Colombia.
Colombia and Venezuela share a border of about 1,370 miles (2,700 kilometers). Bandits, drug traffickers, paramilitary groups and guerrillas take advantage of the remote and desolate landscape to operate, though that did not deter trade before the closure.
And goods have continued to enter Venezuela, illegally over dirt roads manned by armed groups and others with the blessing of officials on both sides of the border. Similarly, illegal imports also enter Colombia, but on a smaller scale.
On Saturday, men slogged loads of soft drinks, bananas, cooking oil, specialty paper, scrap metal and other goods on carts, bicycles, motocycles and their own backs down an illegal road turned into a muddy mess by rain.
Sanctioned trade, however, would flow at a much higher rate.
Although the border is long, all but two of the official border crossings between Venezuela and Colombia are concentrated in a 45-mile (75-kilometer) stretch, which before the shutdown handled 60% of commercial activity between the neighbors. The country's northern-most bridge is about 330 miles away and Venezuela continued to permit some cargo to cross there.
“The expectations are very positive, and we have been waiting for a situation like this for so long,” said Luis Russián, chairman of the Chamber of Venezuelan-Colombian Economic Integration, which is projecting that the agricultural, pharmaceutical and personal hygiene sectors will be among the first to benefit from the reopening. “We consider it a new chapter that is going to be written between Venezuela and Colombia.”
Russián said a few Colombian companies have shown interest in joining the chamber as they consider whether to try to enter the Venezuelan market. The group had about 180 members in the late 2000s but now has roughly half that.
Food, cleaning products, auto parts, chemicals and myriad other goods used to cross between the two nations. Commerce remained strong even in the early years of Venezuela’s socialist governments, when the country’s oil dollars allowed businesses to import all sorts of things. Those relationships were strained when Venezuela’s economic slide left businesses unable to meet payments and access lines of credit.
The commercial exchange that in 2014 reached $2.4 billion was reduced last year to about $406 million, of which $331 million were imports from Colombia, according to the Venezuela-based chamber. The group estimates this year’s activity could reach $800 million if the border remains closed but could go as high as $1.2 billion if the crossings reopen to vehicles.
The Venezuelan government has estimated that the commercial exchange within a year of a fully reopened border could exceed $4 billion.
“That is going to generate employment, that is going to generate wealth, that is going to generate possibilities to produce, to carry out commercial exchanges,” said Jesús Faría, president of the Venezuelan National Assembly’s Permanent Commission on Economy, Finance and Social Development.
Petro, unlike outgoing President Ivan Duque, has expressed willingness to improve ties with Venezuela. After Maduro's 2018 re-election, Duque, along with dozens of other nations, stopped recognizing him as Venezuela's legitimate leader. Duque supported the economic sanctions that the U.S. and European Union imposed on Venezuela and repeatedly accused Maduro of protecting some Colombian rebels.
More than relations will have to be repaired, however, before trailer trucks, tankers and other large vehicles can resume moving between the two countries.
On the Venezuelan side, roads leading to the border are in disrepair and the bridges haven't been maintained. One span even shakes when pedestrians push particularly heavy loads on dolly carts. A bridge that hadn't gotten to open before the closure is still blocked by more than a dozen shipping containers and cement barricades.
Venezuelan truckers lack permits that they stopped paying for when business dwindled. Their counterparts in Colombia want safety guarantees. Venezuelan business owners hope that somehow financing can be arranged, as banks stopped offering loans due to the country's runaway inflation and other economic problems.
It's not only big companies with hopes for renewed trade. The self-employed and small business owners have hopes for the resumption of regular vehicle traffic across the border.
Among them is Janet Delgado, who sells clothes in Venezuela that she buys in Colombia, where she travels on foot about twice a week.
When she goes to buy only a few clothes, she uses a foldable grocery store cart. But like many other merchants, if she needs to bring in a large load, she crosses the border by one of the illegal roads, where the price to move between countries is lower than the bribes she would have to pay to get the clothes home at an official crossing.
“It would be helpful if they stopped charging us,” she said, referring to the bribes. “I bring two bags and they think one is a millionaire. (Vehicular traffic) would be great for me and for others. I bring a few things, but others carry a lot more.”
Regina Garcia Cano, The Associated Press