Back Channel Emerges to Reopen Colombia, Venezuela Border
(Bloomberg) -- Officials on the Colombia and Venezuela border have developed a back channel for communications, bypassing the drawn out diplomatic impasse between the two governments, and are negotiating the restoration of some bilateral relations.
The representatives from state governments in the border region began meeting around three months ago to discuss issues such as cross-border trade, according to three people with knowledge of the talks who asked for anonymity as the discussions are private. The meetings laid the groundwork for Venezuela’s decision this week to reopen the land border for commercial purposes.
The negotiations are a sign that relations are slowly thawing -- even if only on a very local level. Diplomatic ties were severed in 2019 after Colombia joined other nations, including the U.S., in recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s interim leader.
Presidents Ivan Duque of Colombia and Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela have never held an official meeting and regularly exchange barbs. But the 2,200-kilometer (1,380-mile) border, once vital for growth in both places, has provided an opening to find some common ground.
Duque and Maduro are aware of the border meetings but their administrations have not been directly involved, the people said. The negotiations are being led by Victor Bautista, who is an official for the government of the Colombian department of Norte de Santander, and Freddy Bernal, Maduro’s representative in Tachira state.
Neither Bautista nor Bernal responded to messages seeking comment.
On Tuesday, Duque said Colombia, which opened its side of the border in June, is also willing to reopen consulates in Venezuela, “if there are conditions and if there are guarantees.” The reopening of the border, he added on Thursday, “is a triumph of the Venezuelan people, not of the dictator Maduro.” A spokeswoman for the presidency had no further comment.
Maduro also addressed the issue on Thursday evening.
“Today I received several calls from Colombian businessmen. I’ve received messages from them and they’re ready for a new economic, commercial, financial chapter between Colombia and Venezuela,” he said on state television. “Ivan Duque doesn’t matter to me, what matters to me is the Colombian people, Colombian businessmen, the Grand Colombia and its father who is our father, Simon Bolivar.”
This comes as Venezuela’s government and opposition hold talks in Mexico aimed at reaching accords on economic and political issues, including holding local elections in November. Guaido, whose allies are participating in the talks, said Monday on Twitter that he and Duque discussed reopening the border and Colombian consulates in Venezuela.
Venezuela’s Vice President Delcy Rodriguez said this week that Venezuela would remove barriers at a border bridge, allowing commercial trade to eventually resume. Issues including security and health regulations related to Covid-19 need to be resolved before the border can fully reopen, according to the people.
Business groups have been pushing for the governments to normalize border trade since at least last year to cut down on contraband that has proliferated since the official crossing was closed, the people said.
At its peak in 2008, annual trade between the two countries was nearly $5 billion. But that tumbled to just $120 million through July this year, according to the Colombian statistics agency DANE. After frequent disruptions, many Colombian exporters had to seek new markets for their products.
Maduro’s representatives first reached out to Colombia at the start of the year to request normalizing diplomatic ties. Duque’s government refused to negotiate but discussions did begin among local officials, according to the people.
While Colombia and Venezuela are culturally and socially very similar, ties have been fraught for decades over the presence of guerrilla groups crisscrossing the frontier, narcotrafficking and political disagreements.
Nearly 2 million Venezuelans have migrated to Colombia to escape economic hardship at home. While Colombia has provided support to many through permits allowing them to work legally and access health care, hostility toward Venezuelan migrants has also increased, especially during the economic hardships of 2020 sparked by the pandemic.
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