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To ease food shortages, Venezuela opens border with Colombia

More than 100,000 Venezuelans crossed into Colombia to purchase food and medicine over the weekend.

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Venezuelan's carrying their purchases greet Colombian policemen as they return to their country through the Simon Bolivar bridge in Cucuta, Colombia, Sunday. Tens of thousands of Venezuelans crossed the border into Colombia on Sunday to hunt for food and medicine that are in short supply at home.

Ariana Cubillos/AP

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As a crumbling Venezuelan economy has left much of the South American country without adequate food or medicine, more than 100,000 Venezuelans crossed into neighboring Colombia over the weekend in search of provisions.

Venezuela temporarily opened the border to provide relief for its citizens, who have been accustomed to waiting in line for hours for anything from corn flour to medicine. Those who can’t afford to shop at the supermarket have been making do with native mangoes, papayas, and coconuts to supplement fewer than three meals a day.

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The temporary opening of the border appears to be a short-term solution to an unremitting problem. Venezuela has seen its economy ravaged by triple-digit inflation, currency controls that have restricted investments and imports, and a plunge in global oil prices, leaving the government of the OPEC nation unable to maintain the subsidies it created during the rule of late President Hugo Chávez.

"I've come to buy what I can't find in the country – rice, beans, lentils, sugar, toilet paper," Elizabeth Perez, a public employee, told Reuters. "I came a few days ago with a group of people so I could cross into Colombia today. We're only eating once a day."

It was the second weekend in a row the Venezuelan government opened parts of the 1,378-mile border it closed to Colombia last August, ostensibly to combat smuggling, although Venezuelan President Nicholás Maduro offered several explanations for why the country sealed the border and declared a state of emergency.

One was to stop the widespread smuggling that the Venezuelan government said has led to the shortages. Venezuela heavily subsidizes gasoline and food, which means they can be sold for higher prices across the border. Another was Mr. Maduro's allegation that Colombian paramilitaries, at the instigation of former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe, attacked a Venezuelan patrol.

Following the allegations against Columbia, its president, Juan Manuel Santos, said closing the border was Maduro's attempt to shift blame to outsiders for Venezuela's economic crash under his administration. Others have said Maduro "manufactured" the crisis, including The Washington Post's Editorial Board, which wrote Maduro's claims were "ludicrous." Opposition to the Venezuelan government says the shortages are the result of government mismanagement, reported the BBC.

Maduro said the jarring news a few weeks ago of 500 women rushing across a bridge from Urena, Venezuela, to Cucuta, Colombia, out of desperation to buy food was merely "a media show."

Venezuela's state TV aired Sunday footage of Venezuelans returning from Colombia empty-handed because of what they called "price-gouging" and the threat of violence from Colombians.

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At the crossing this past weekend, the grimness of Venezuelans' lives across the border was drowned out by vallento tunes, beloved in both countries. Colombian officials dressed in white shirts, much like the 500 women who stormed the border checkpoint a few weeks ago, individually welcoming those arriving while police handed out cake.  

"It's kind of crazy day," Alejandro Chacon, who owns a hardware store in the nearby town of San Cristóbal and was crossing the border for the first time since the closure, told the Associated Press."It's strange to see this, but we know we're going to find what we want in Colombia, so it's a nice difference."

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.