Venezuelans hunt for food in Colombia

CUCUTA, Colombia (AFP) –Thousands of Venezuelans poured across the border into Colombia on Sunday to buy essential goods during a brief opening of the border that’s been closed for nearly a year.

After ordering the border closed last August for security reasons, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro authorized a maximum 12-hour opening of the pedestrian bridge that connects Tachira, Venezuela and Cucuta, Colombia.

Economically ravaged Venezuela has suffered food and medicine shortages for months, a ripple effect from the falling price of oil, the country’s primary export. Critics also blame grave mishandling of the state-led economy.

Some 500 desperate Venezuelans illegally stormed the border earlier this week in search of basic goods.

“There’s no medicine for children; children are dying,” Tulia Somaza told AFP as she eagerly shopped among the masses in this border city. “People don’t even have soap to wash clothes.”

Some people even spent the night in parked vehicles to get a good spot in line for the early 6:00 am (1000 GMT) opening.

According to a tweet from William Villamizar, governor of the Norte de Santander department that includes Cucuta, some 25,000 people surged in within the first seven hours.

“Thank God!” was the motto of the day as Venezuelans stocked up on flour, oil, toilet paper and shampoo.

“Thank you for this welcome, the people of Venezuela are experiencing a serious humanitarian situation,” said Jose Gregorio Sanchez, a resident of the border town of Urena.

“The Venezuelan government halted the industries that supplied the population,” Sanchez told AFP, noting that the devalued Venezuelan currency does make it more expensive to shop in Colombia, but it’s “much cheaper” than the Venezuelan black market.

Shortages as high as 80 percent followed the global dip in oil prices, a devastating blow to a South American country whose oil and gas reserves account for 96 percent of its exports.

Colombia deployed 300 police officers to Cucuta to monitor two of the city’s largest supermarkets following reports of shoving early Sunday.

Many arrived by car after crossing into Colombia, but some were transported from the border in security vehicles sent out for the occasion.

Maduro, an elected socialist, has blamed an “economic war” caused by “right-wing bosses” for the mass shortages.

In a sign of Maduro’s concern at mounting social unrest, the president on Thursday replaced the head of the National Guard.

The Venezuelan opposition launched its efforts to remove the president after winning control of the legislature in January. But Maduro has challenged his rivals through the Supreme Court, which they accuse him of controlling.

Maduro ordered the border shut in August 2015 after former Colombian paramilitaries attacked a Venezuelan military patrol and wounded three soldiers, causing a diplomatic row between the neighboring countries.

The two ministers of defense from both countries met last week to discuss potentially reopening border gates on the 2,000-kilometer (1,250-mile) stretch separating the countries.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and his Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin also visited Cucuta last week to push for a reopening.

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