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Colombia and Venezuela are re-opening their border after seven years

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The border between Colombia and Venezuela has been officially closed to trade for nearly seven years. The countries recently reestablished diplomatic ties. And on Monday, the border reopens to all traffic. Commercial flights between the countries will also resume soon. Manuel Rueda is on the Colombian side of the border for NPR. Good morning.

MANUEL RUEDA, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning, Ayesha.

RASCOE: Why did the border between the two countries close to trade in the first place?

RUEDA: Well, this began in 2015, when the smuggling of cheap, subsidized goods from Venezuela was increasing into Colombia. And then there was an incident where three Venezuelan soldiers were killed, apparently by smugglers. So that kind of launched everything. And after that, the Venezuelan president shut down the border. Then in 2019, tensions flared up again when the Colombian government, with the help of the U.S., was trying to deliver truckloads of aid, of food to the opposition in Venezuela as part of a greater effort to help the opposition groups in Venezuela. After that, the shutdown intensified for a year. Then it's been open for some time just to foot traffic. But on Monday, things will begin to normalize again because we'll see, you know, more commerce - trucks going along the border with different types of goods.

RASCOE: So you've been talking to people on both sides of the border. What will this mean for them and the region as a whole?

RUEDA: Well, this will be very important for businesses on both sides of the border because they can get exchange - for example, raw materials - with each other, without having to resort to smugglers who take goods along dirt paths, you know, along the border, which is what they've been doing for now. So, for example, I was talking to a baker in the town of - on the Venezuelan side, who said, I can import flour from - I could import flour from Colombia now without having to resort to the smugglers, and maybe that'll make my products cheaper. So that's expected to activate the local economy.

RASCOE: And so record numbers of Venezuelans are leaving their country. Will this change encourage more to stay?

RUEDA: Well, not for now, I think. The economic situation in Venezuela is still quite difficult, and it's going to take some time to get that sorted out. So for example, yesterday, I was driving along a road that goes from the Colombian border into the center of Venezuela, and you can still see many people there walking along the road. These are immigrants from Venezuela trying to get into the center of Colombia and to other countries. And they're just walking - right? - because they can't afford the bus fare, you know?

And I met a young man there in one of the shelters. He's 21 years old. And he's telling me, look. In Venezuela, I was working at a chicken plant, and my salary was $20 a month, which is more or less the minimum wage in Venezuela at the moment. So he says, you know, this is no way to live. So that's why, you know, people are still leaving. I mean, in August, there were about - Venezuelans were encountered in the border between Mexico and the United States about 25,000 times, which was four times higher than the number of encounters of Venezuelans in August of last year. So you can still see that people are moving...

RASCOE: OK.

RUEDA: ...And people will continue to leave Venezuela while the economic situation does not get sorted out.

RASCOE: OK.

RUEDA: This reopening of the border...

RASCOE: Oh, I...

RUEDA: ...Is a first step.

RASCOE: Thank you.

RUEDA: But there's still...

RASCOE: Thank you. That's Manuel Rueda at the Colombia-Venezuela border. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Manuel Rueda