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120,000 desperate Venezuelans poured into Colombia to buy food but now the border is closed again

The border between the two countries was closed last August. Days after its Sunday opening, Colombia’s government said it will close the border again.

by Alicia Hernández and Joe Parkin Daniels
Jul 19 2016, 10:16pm

Gente cargando bolsas y paquetes mientras cruzan la frontera entre Colombia y Venezuela en el puente Simón Bolívar. (Imagen por Carlos Eduardo Ramírez/Reuters)

Colombia's government has said it will keep its border with Venezuela closed in the wake of the dramatic weekend scenes of 120,000 Venezuelans flooding over a bridge to go shopping in the city of Cúcuta.

That was just the second time frontier posts along the 1,380-mile border have opened since Venezuela's President Nicolás Maduro closed it in August last year.

The first relaxation, on July 10, came five days after 500 women pushed their way through Venezuelan border police and illegally crossed into Colombia. The women, many of them dressed in white, headed straight for local stores to stock up on affordable basic goods that are in dramatically short supply in Venezuela because of the country's plunging production, rampant inflation, and fizzling imports.

Images of last weekend's surge in the numbers of Venezuelans heading over the border showed them struggling back overloaded with products such as rice, beans, lentils, milk, medicines, toilet paper, and diapers. One shopper told Reuters she was hoping to buy a cesarean kit for her pregnant daughter owing to the shortage of medical equipment.

The Associated Press reported that police handed out cake to some of the shoppers as loudspeakers blasted traditional vallenato music and buses taking people to nearby stores displayed signs reading "Welcome to Colombia, Venezuelan brothers."

Within hours, however, Colombian foreign minister María Ángela Holguín announced that the Colombian authorities would be closing the border again with the aim of negotiating a full and permanent reopening at talks due to take place on August 4.

"We want a secure and tranquil border that we can control in a completely legal way," Holguín said on Monday evening after meeting with local authorities in the frontier zone. "We are going to work to get the frontier ready to open again so that Venezuelans can come again, but in a secure way."

Related: There's no sign of an end to Venezuela's food crisis

Holguín's announcement of the reclosure of the border was echoed by José G. Vielma, governor of the Venezuelan border state of Táchira.

"At the request of Colombia we are not going to allow crossing of the border in either direction," Vielma told reporters. "We need an open frontier, but Colombia will not allow the opening of an illegal crossing and we don't want it either."

The temporary relaxation of Venezuelan controls this month had come without any official announcement from the Venezuelan government.

President Maduro himself ignored the weekend's events on his normally active Twitter feed. Instead he focused on the death, on Sunday, of one brother of former president Hugo Chávez, his mentor and the founder of Venezuela's so-called Bolivarian Revolution who is still revered by many poor in the country.

Foreign Minister Delcy Rodríguez was also silent, though she did retweet posts saying the goods being sold in Colombia were actually of Venezuelan origin.

Economic and political analyst Luis Salamanca said the decision to open the border was an effort to provide the population with a pressure valve, as well as the need to avoid a repeat of the sight of the ladies in white pushing past law enforcement. Several people have died in recent months in Venezuela after police or soldiers opened fire on protesters demanding food.

"The opening of the frontier is a way of avoiding a gigantic social catastrophe that is even bigger than the one we are currently living," Salamanca said. "The government is trying to do it in some kind of controlled way, and so that people can fill their shelves a little."

The opposition, meanwhile, has jumped on the opportunity to accuse the government of being blind to the humanitarian crisis in the country and welcome the signs that it is now likely that the border will soon be reopened permanently again.

"Domestic production cannot be increased in the short term because we do not have any hard currency and because nobody wants to invest in the country because of the political instability," said opposition-linked economist Francisco Faraco. "If we don't buy abroad we will die of hunger."

It was also welcomed by pro-government economist Tony Boza, though he stressed that the closure had been justified as a protective measure "against the systematic damage that Colombia has done to us for the last 15 years."

Related: Venezuelans are risking their lives to access medical supplies

President Maduro originally said the closure of the border last August was necessary to combat cross-border crime that he blamed on Colombian paramilitaries and gangs. He also claimed that Colombians buying up subsidized goods in Venezuela was causing shortages.

The lack of basic goods, however, have worsened since the frontier shut down, with shortages only intensifying despite numerous government special programs.

Last week Maduro announced the Gran Misión Abastecimiento Soberano y Seguro, or the Great Sovereign and Secure Supply Mission, that hands over control of the production and distribution of basic goods to the Venezuelan armed forces under the control of minister of defense General Vladimir Padrino López.

"This is a great civilian-military mission," the president said upon launching the program. "It is the first civilian-military mission."

Watch: Last Days of Chavez's Legacy: The Fall of Chavismo in Venezuela

Follow Alicia Hernández and Joe Parkin Daniels on Twitter: @por_puestoand @joeparkdan