Colombia and Venezuela are set to reopen two critical border crossings to cargo transport, as the neighbouring countries continue to mend relations after years of political conflict.
The reopening – which will see goods like coal, toilet paper and fruit moved through crossings between the Colombian city of Cucuta and the Venezuelan state of Tachira – was a key campaign promise of Colombia’s new left-wing President Gustavo Petro.
Petro arrived at Simon Bolivar International Bridge, one of the main crossings that connects the two countries, for a reopening ceremony on Monday morning, Al Jazeera’s Alessandro Rampietti reported from the bridge.
“There are a number of trucks waiting, filled with cargo, to cross again – which hasn’t happened formally … since 2015, except for a few very limited occasions,” Rampietti said.
“Obviously this means a lot symbolically; symbolically [it] shows the end of this … sort of cold war that has existed between Colombia and Venezuela for a number of years now,” he said, adding that the hope is that the resumption of trade will help improve the economic situation in the area.
The reopening comes weeks after Petro and his Venezuelan counterpart President Nicolas Maduro announced that they planned to restore diplomatic relations, which were severed in 2019.
Petro has said he will recognise Maduro and work with the Venezuelan government on several issues, including fighting rebel groups along the porous border between the nations.
Commercial flights between the countries will also resume soon, potentially enabling billions of dollars in trade after years of icy bilateral relations and heavily-restricted economic ties. Caracas and Bogota also have announced intentions to restore military relations.
On Monday, four trucks from company Transporte Condor were loaded with toilet paper, plastic glasses, medical supplies and textiles to cross early from Cucuta. The goods, weighing 120 tonnes, are valued at some $80,000, manager Diego Bohorquez said.
The border has already been opened to pedestrians, with many Venezuelans crossing to buy basic goods amid their country’s long-running economic crisis. Cargo transport had previously only been allowed through one northern crossing.
The border has long been home to dozens of irregular crossings, fuel and food smuggling and drug trafficking. And the closures have not ended the transportation of various goods – including some over dirt roads by armed groups – into Venezuela. Criminal groups also have used the roads for trafficking operations.
Merchants on both sides of the 2,219km (1,379-mile) frontier have been eagerly awaiting the normalisation since Petro’s June election, hopeful open trade will allow them access to raw materials and new customers.
Trade between the two countries could total more than $600m this year, the Colombian government has said. It totalled $7bn in 2008, before Venezuela’s then-president Hugo Chavez froze it to protest a Bogota-Washington military deal.
People along the border have expressed the hope that the reopening will bring in much-needed commerce to the region.
“It will be something very positive for both countries, Colombia and Venezuela,” said Michael, a Venezuelan man who only gave The Associated Press his first name, who was crossing the Simon Bolivar bridge between the two countries on Sunday.
“The borders will open, there will be more commerce. And I hope that in a few months, it will also open for private cars. There will be more jobs.”
In 2015, the smuggling of cheap, subsidised goods from Venezuela into Colombia skyrocketed. This was followed by an incident where three Venezuelan soldiers were killed, apparently by smugglers, after which Maduro ordered the closure of legal crossing points.
In 2019, Caracas broke off relations with Bogota after Venezuelan opposition activists tried to send aid trucks from Colombia. Maduro’s government said it was a front for an attempted coup.
Colombia has previously accused Venezuela of offering assistance and shelter to armed groups in the border region, a claim bolstered by a report by Human Rights Watch in March.