Venezuela: Border opens, consulates close and fuel shortages create more suffering

June 14, 2019
Venezuelans crossing over the Simon Bolivar Bridge, the border with Colombia. Photo: Venezuela Analysis

The border between Venezuela and Colombia has been partially reopened after nearly four months.

The principal crossing posts of the Simon Bolivar and Francisco de Paula Santander International Bridges — which connect Venezuela’s Tachira State with Colombia’s Northern Santander Department — were reopened on June 8 for pedestrian crossing. They still remain closed for vehicles.

The lesser used northern Paraguachon crossing and southern Paez and Ayacucho crossings remain closed, as does the Tienditas International Bridge in Tachira State, which was never operational.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro described the decision as an “exercise of sovereignty”.

Following the re-opening, Colombian immigration authorities reported a “slight increase” in the number of people entering the country, describing conditions at the borders as “normal”.

The director general of Colombian immigration, Christian Kruger, disclosed that more than 34,000 Venezuelans entered Colombia on June 8, with nearly 40,000 returning to Venezuela the same day.

The 2219 kilometre-long Colombia–Venezuela border was closed on February 22, one day before self-proclaimed “Interim President” Juan Guaido unsuccessfully attempted to force “humanitarian aid” into Venezuela with the assistance of Colombian and United States authorities. Diplomatic relations between the countries, which were broken on February 23, have not been restored.

The border closure forced thousands of Venezuelan and Colombian citizens to use illegal “green road” crossings to visit family, commute to work, attend school or purchase products. Those crossings are predominantly controlled by armed groups linked to Colombia’s civil conflict and require a significant cash payment to transit.

The opening of the Tachira crossing comes as the United Nations High Commission for Refugees released new figures on Venezuelan migration, claiming that more than four million citizens have left the country since 2015.

The Maduro administration has contested the figure, accusing the UN body of “inflating” figures to receive extra funding and allegedly bolster US efforts to oust the government.

Reciprocal diplomatic measures

The Venezuelan government also announced that it would “temporarily” close its Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal consulates in Canada on June 8, in what it calls a “reciprocal” measure. The Ottawa embassy will continue to function, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza announced.

The move, he says, is a “political decision” responding to the “continued hostility” from Ottawa, which he accused of being “disciplined in its subordination” to Washington. Canada announced the closure of its Caracas embassy on June 8, citing visa restrictions.

Venezuela is also to start requiring visas for all Peruvians entering the country as of June 15 in response to a similar measure rolled out by Lima last week. According to Venezuelan immigration authorities, there are 500,000 Peruvians living in the country, while about 800,000 Venezuelans now reside in Peru.

Both Peru and Canada recognise Guaido as Venezuela’s “interim president” and have called on Maduro to step down. Canada has followed Washington in applying sanctions against Venezuela, which international bodies describe as “illegal”. A recent independent report estimated that sanctions have caused about 40,000 deaths in Venezuela since 2017.

Fuel shortages

A man was killed on June 8 during an altercation with National Guards and the police at a petrol station in Merida State, where fuel shortages have created queues of up to nine days at petrol stations.

Wilderman Paredes, who had been queuing to fill his tank in Los Llanitos de Tabay was allegedly involved in riots that broke out upon the arrival of the fuel tanker. He later died from a bullet wound in the throat. Local Mayor Jose Otalora told Reuters that his death was “regrettable” and suggested that Paredes was drunk at the time. Another man has reportedly been seriously wounded but is in a stable condition.

It remains unclear what sparked the riot, but on-the-spot reporters allege that it began when citizens protested against acts of corruption by local National Guard personnel. Others have claimed that the conflict was triggered by citizens attempting to impede the closure of the petrol station at 10.30pm. Minor altercations were also reported in other nearby stations on June 9 without loss of life.

The death follows that of Humberto Trejo, who died in the same region on June 3 from a heart attack while waiting several days in the petrol station queue.

While the west of the country has suffered from moderate fuel shortages over the past couple years due to declining production and cross-border contraband, the situation has become increasingly critical nationwide after US sanctions prohibiting petrol exports to Venezuela came into full effect on April 28, cutting off Venezuela from 54,000 barrels per day (BPD) of fuel. While crude production was close to 834,000 BPD in May, Venezuela is estimated to produce only 200,000 BPD of petrol, short of the national demand of 250,000 BPD.

More recently on June 6, the United States Treasury Department hit Venezuela with new sanctions, prohibiting the export of diluents [diluting agents] to the South American country. Venezuela relies on such imports to blend its heavy crude into exportable grades, as well as produce petrol and diesel for internal consumption.

Farmers and opposition leaders claim that up to 60% of crops have been lost in Venezuela’s productive Andean region due to a lack of fuel for transport.

[Reprinted from Venezuela Analysis.]

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