By Luis Jaime Acosta
BOGOTA (Reuters) – Colombia wants a permanent opening of its border with Venezuela and will not allow further temporary crossings, the foreign minister said, after tens of thousands of Venezuelans streamed in during the weekend to buy items scarce in their own country.
Facing an unprecedented economic crisis, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government has allowed citizens to cross into Colombia the past two weekends after closing the border last year in a crackdown on smuggling.
The next border opening should be permanent, Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin said late on Monday.
“We have taken the decision that there will not be another session like the ones over the past two weekends,” she told journalists. “We will work for the opening, the next opening, to be definitive.”
With many Venezuelans traveling from afar to reach the border, about 167,000 have taken the opportunity to shop for basics such as toilet paper, cooking oil, flour and baby supplies in border cities like Cucuta.
Venezuela closed the crossings along the two countries’ 2,219-kilometer (1,378-mile) land border in August 2015 in what Maduro described as an effort to combat smuggling of subsidized Venezuelan products to Colombia.
Thousands of Colombians living in the neighboring country returned home or were deported after the closings.
After Venezuela closed the main border crossings, critics said the move merely damaged bilateral trade and did little to tackle smuggling given numerous other informal routes and the complicity of authorities in trafficking.
As shortages have grown more widespread in Venezuela, the trafficking phenomenon has reversed, with Venezuelans smuggling products back in from Colombia for sale at home.
Crossing the border into Colombia on Sunday, some Venezuelans chanted anti-Maduro slogans including: “It will fall, this government will fall!”
Opponents blame Maduro and predecessor Hugo Chavez for Venezuela’s economic mess, saying failed socialist policies have resulted in the recession, runaway inflation, widespread shortages and massive shopping lines people are now suffering.
Maduro, however, says the oil price fall is to blame and alleges his government is also the victim of an “economic war” by political foes and businessmen, stoked by the United States. Complicit international media are exaggerating the nation’s problems, he says.
Venezuela’s opposition coalition is seeking a recall referendum that could oust Maduro, 53, this year, but government officials vow that will not happen and the election board is dragging its feet over the process.
(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Helen Murphy, Andrew Cawthorne and Bill Trott)