The governments of Venezuela and Colombia on Monday took a step toward normalizing ties when Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro hosted an event to welcome the newly appointed ambassador from the neighboring country, a post that had been empty since 2019 over a diplomatic impasse.
Colombian Ambassador Armando Benedetti met with Maduro a day after arriving in Venezuela. He was designated to the post by new Colombian President Gustavo Petro, who abandoned his predecessor’s opposition to Maduro and vowed to re-establish relations with his government.
Maduro and Benedetti met at the Miraflores Palace in the capital, Caracas.
Colombia, for decades the region’s strongest ally of the US, was among dozens of countries that withdrew recognition of Maduro as Venezuela’s legitimate leader after his 2018 re-election, which they argued was fraudulent.
Petro, Colombia’s first leftist president, and Maduro have expressed willingness to build a new stage of cooperation, including the reopening of border crossing bridges to commercial traffic, the renewal of military collaboration to ease tensions in areas where armed groups operate and the resumption of Colombian consular services in Venezuela.
Venezuelan Ambassador to Colombia Felix Plasencia also arrived at his post on Sunday.
Maduro expelled all Colombian diplomats in February 2019. He maintains that former Colombian president Ivan Duque for years promoted plans to topple his government.
Duque supported the economic sanctions the US and EU imposed on Venezuela, and repeatedly accused Maduro of protecting some Colombian rebels.
Maduro, meanwhile, accused Duque’s government of allowing people within Colombia to plot against Venezuela, including when the US-backed opposition tried to cross the border with humanitarian aid and held the star-studded “Venezuela Aid Live” concert.
Colombia and Venezuela share a border of about 2,700km. Bandits, drug traffickers, paramilitary groups and guerrillas take advantage of the remote and desolate landscape to operate, although that did not deter legal trade before Maduro ordered the closure of official border crossing points in 2015.
Maduro ordered the border shutdown as a result of an attack suffered by three soldiers and a civilian in a border town when they were carrying out anti-smuggling operations. Foot traffic eventually resumed, and some cargo continued to move through the northernmost bridge.
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 any given day, men slog loads of soft drinks, avocado and other produce, cooking oil and other goods on carts, bicycles, motorcycles and their own backs down illegal roads.
However, sanctioned trade would flow at a much higher rate.
The commercial exchange that in 2014 reached US$2.4 billion was reduced last year to about US$406 million, of which US$331 million were imports from Colombia, the Chamber of Venezuelan-Colombian Economic Integration said.
The group, based in Caracas, estimates this year’s activity could reach US$800 million if the border remains closed, but could go as high as US$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 US$4 billion.
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