Venezuela and Colombia have agreed to gradually reopen their borders starting this weekend. The Venezuelan government closed border crossings last year to crack down on smuggling.
Officials will open five border checkpoints for pedestrians from 6am to 9pm each day with immediate effect. Colombia expects an instant influx of Venezuelans flooding into the country to buy food and medicine.
The vast majority of Venezuelans have been desperate to cross into Colombia to purchase basic goods, as food shortages have deteriorated in the economically challenged country which has been hit by the fall in oil prices. A number of Venezuelans have even died after being refused permission to cross the border to go to better-stocked Colombian hospitals.
Venezuela is in the midst of a severe economic crisis, with triple-digit inflation leaving many hungry and standing in lines for hours every day for basic staples. Food riots and looting have turned the country's violent crime rate into one of the world's highest.
President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela and President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia met in the Venezuelan city of Puerto Ordaz to agree on a deal to reopen the border. Maduro had blamed his country's problems partly on Colombians, sparking a diplomatic spat between the two nations before the border's closure.
President Nicolas Maduro and President Juan Manuel Santos spent months negotiating a way to reopen the border
The reopening of the borders signaled a warming of relations between the neighboring countries one year after Maduro had closed them in what he referred to as a crackdown on smugglers and paramilitary groups. Smuggling of price-controlled gasoline into Colombia fell 70 percent after the closure, according to the Venezuelan National Guard.
Colombian President Santos stressed that bilateral talks had taken place for months in preparation for the reopening and that both countries would put safeguards into place to curb smuggling. Maduro added that the move was "a new beginning in economic and commercial relations with all of Colombia's productive sectors."
The troubled Venezuelan leader had but little choice. Hundreds of Venezuelans stormed a border checkpoint in July and illegally crossed into Colombia for a day to simply go grocery shopping.
Venezuela temporarily opened the border for short periods following that incident to allow people to make purchases. More than 100,000 Venezuelans crossed into Colombia during a temporary weekend border opening in July.
ss/rc (AP, Reuters)