Venezuelans Tearful Amid Colombia’s Full Shelves And Polite Cops

  • Thousands flood into Colombia to shop as border briefly opens
  • Venezuelans faces shortages of everything from rice to soap

They massed at the border crossings in the dead of night, tens of thousands of Venezuelans seeking a brief respite from the world’s deepest economic crisis. By dawn on Sunday, they had packed the Venezuelan half of Simon Bolivar bridge and more kept coming.

For only the third time in a year, Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro had opened the border to neighboring Colombia and tens of thousands seized the opportunity to buy essential items such as rice and shampoo -- goods scarcely available now in once-wealthy Venezuela.

Venezuelans cross the border into Colombia on July 17.

Photographer: Schneyder Mendoza/Bloomberg

The Colombian security forces appeared to have been ordered to wage a charm offensive, smiling and saying “Welcome to Colombia’’ as the Venezuelans streamed past. At least three women burst into tears when they reached the Colombian side, and a man shouted “Viva Colombia’’. Some cursed Maduro’s administration back home which they blamed for reducing them to the point where to buy products as basic as rice they now need to cross an international frontier.

“We were a nation that was super rich, and now look at us,” said Yorcy Exposito, who said she set out from her home in the city of San Cristobal at 4 a.m. “Our government just needs to go, and not come back. They humiliate us.”

Venezuela has been hit by food riots and outbreaks of looting in recent months as shortages worsen. People line up for hours in the tropical heat only to find that the products they want have sold out. By contrast, the Colombian border town of Cucuta seemed a shoppers’ paradise.

QuickTake: Venezuela’s Revolution

Cornucopia

After the border opened at 6 a.m., thousands streamed across dragging empty suitcases that they hoped to fill with produce. As the frontier was only open to foot traffic for a few hours, most immediately boarded buses provided by local authorities and headed to the shops in downtown Cucuta that had opened early for them.

Most Venezuelans in the Los Montes supermarket loaded up on rice, cooking oil and maize flour. Some bought toilet paper, sanitary towels, sunblock, soap and shampoo.

Venezuelans cross the border into Colombia on July 17.

Photographer: Schneyder Mendoza/Bloomberg

“I’ll give birth sooner than I’ll find shampoo in Venezuela,’’ said one woman who was weighing whether to buy a Pantene brand shampoo, adding that she was two months pregnant.

Smuggler and Controls

Venezuela’s government ordered the border closed last year in a bid to curb the smuggling of gasoline and other subsidized goods into Colombia. Despite this, shortages have continued to worsen amid price controls, expropriations of local producers and the drop in oil prices over the past two years. The economy, which has the world’s largest oil reserves, is set to contract 8 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund, the deepest slump among all the economies for which it publishes forecasts.

Demand to get into Colombia is such that the authorities were forced to open the border briefly on Saturday after thousands turned up a day early, according to William Villamizar, governor of the Colombia’s border province of Norte de Santander.

“To avoid a stampede, there could have been deaths or something, they preferred to open it,” Villamizar said in an interview at the border crossing.

Once inside Colombia, many found the shopping easy compared with the long lines, frustrations and sometimes fights they experience in Venezuela.

“To get a kilo of rice, you have to queue for six to eight hours, exposing yourself to mistreatment, people pushing, jumping in line, then when you get to the front they close the store and say everything’s sold out,” said Rosalba Duarte, a nurse from the town of Capacho who said she began queuing at the border at 3 a.m.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
LEARN MORE