Colombia and Venezuela promise ‘cooperation’ in border dispute
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The foreign ministers of Colombia and Venezuela have promised to increase cooperation following talks to ease heightened tensions caused by the closure of a major border crossing and a weeklong crackdown on Colombian migrants and smugglers.
Diplomats left a meeting Wednesday in a Caribbean coastal resort without announcing a decision to re-open the border crossing or end the deportations from Venezuela, only saying that defense officials from the two countries would talk in the coming days to form a joint plan for border security.
Meanwhile, in the Colombian city of Cucuta, residents complained of long gas lines as Venezuela's security offensive cuts off trade, legal and otherwise, between the two nations.
Across the border, scores of Colombians packed their belongings into suitcases and prepared for an army escort out of Venezuela, joining the estimated 1,000 of their compatriots who have already been deported.
Donamaris Ramirez, the mayor of Cucuta, says he plans to order gas stations to remain open 24 hours to attend to demand normally met by curbside smugglers who purchase gasoline in Venezuela at less than a penny a gallon and resell it for huge profits in Colombia.
With two main border crossings closed, the underground economy has come to a halt, satisfying Venezuelan officials who have long blamed transnational mafias for widespread shortages but also jeopardising the livelihood of tens of thousands of poor Colombians who depend on the black market.
On Tuesday, a group of 100 Colombians fled the border town of San Antonio del Tachira by wading across a knee-deep river with their possession, everything from TVs to doors, slung across their backs.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos offered to help returning Colombians find work during a visit Wednesday to an emergency shelter in Cucuta overrun with deportees, and promised deported citizens a subsidy of about $80 to help them land on their feet.
Earlier, in a speech in Bogota, he ran through a series of economic and crime statistics, everything from projections Venezuela's economy will shrink 7 percent this year to widespread shortages comparable to those found in war zones like Syria, in a sharp retort to the aggressive rhetoric coming from Caracas in recent days
"Venezuela's problems are made in Venezuela, they're not made in Colombia or other parts of the world," Santos told a forum of former presidents from around the world.
While some 5 million Colombians live in Venezuela, the security offensive has focused on a few towns near the border where Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro blames migrant gangs for rampant crime and smuggling that has caused widespread shortages.
The crisis was triggered a week ago when gunmen Maduro claimed were paramilitaries linked to former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe shot and wounded three army officers on an anti-smuggling patrol.
The socialist leader has vowed to keep two normally busy international bridges closed, and possibly extend restrictions to other transit crossings until Colombian authorities help bring order to the porous, 1,400-mile (2,200 kilometre) border. A state of emergency allowing the government to restrict peoples' movement for up to 60 days has been declared in six cities.
Venezuelan soldiers blocked the river crossing on Wednesday morning, but were helping Colombian residents of a slum that is slated for demolition leave Venezuela via a legal bridge crossing.
A group of about 300 Colombians staged a protest Wednesday in front of Venezuela's consulate in Bogota.
Maduro has angrily denied the denunciations of mistreatment, saying that Venezuelans are unfairly paying the price for Colombia's disregard of its poor.
The Colombians who abandoned their cinder block homes Tuesday in a riverside shantytown community known as La Invasion - "the Invasion" - said they were given 72 hours to pack up and leave by Venezuela's army. Officials say the slum has become a haven for paramilitaries and contraband traffickers.
In recent decades, many Colombians have moved to Venezuela, either fleeing from conflict or seeking better opportunities in an oil rich country which in the 1970s earned the moniker ‘Saudi Venezuela’.
Meanwhile critics have accused Maduro of trying to distract Venezuelans from soaring inflation and empty supermarket shelves.
Among them Yair Acevedo, 48, a publicist who, like dozens of other Colombians, queued outside a Colombian consulate in Caracas under the tropical sun on Wednesday to get his papers in order.
"I want to leave as soon as possible. This is a major abuse of power," said Yair Acevedo.
"Life in Venezuela is a disaster now. Maduro thinks he's going to lose the elections, so this is a distraction."
Maduro, whose Socialist Party is forecast to fare poorly in the Dec. 6 parliamentary election, says the crackdown is necessary to stop the Colombian right, smugglers and paramilitaries from plotting to worsen shortages and subvert him.
Under the state of emergency, constitutional guarantees such as the right to protest, carry weapons or move freely will be restricted for 60 days.
(FRANCE 24 with AP, REUTERS)