Venezuelans Used To Cross Borders For Luxuries; Now It's For Toilet Paper : Parallels Venezuelans are going to Colombia to buy essentials unavailable at home like bread, sugar and medicines. But life on the border is going through its own economic downturn.

Venezuelans Used To Cross Borders For Luxuries; Now It's For Toilet Paper

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The border between Venezuela and Colombia used to be a bustling commercial corridor. But oil-rich Venezuela is going through an economic meltdown with critical shortages of food and medicine. Plus, the country has the world's highest inflation rate. As reporter John Otis tells us, the crisis has now reached the Colombian side of the border.

JAIDER HERAS: (Speaking Spanish).

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Jaider Heras owns a liquor warehouse in Maicao, a town located in the Guajira Desert of northern Colombia and just a stone's throw from Venezuela.

HERAS: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Heras says he used to sell up to 300 cases of whiskey and rum per day to mostly Venezuelan customers. But their buying power has evaporated due to the collapse of the Bolivar, the Venezuelan currency. The few Venezuelans who still come to Maicao now stock up on food and other essentials that are hard to find back home.

HERAS: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "Look how I've had to change my store," Heras says as he shows me around. "I now sell rice, sugar and cooking oil, which is what Venezuelans are looking for."

HERAS: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Heras' profits have shrunk. But at least he's still in business. More than 150 Maicao stores, that, in better times, sold Venezuelans everything from computers to car parts, have shut down. The border problems began three years ago amid a steep drop in oil prices and what critics describe as failed socialist economic policies in Venezuela. The country's president, Nicolas Maduro, made things worse last year by closing the land border with Colombia to crack down on smugglers whom he blamed for his country's food shortages. The border reopened in August but only for pedestrians.


OTIS: Even so, some Venezuelan vehicles manage to get across the border to Maicao on clandestine dirt trails. Along the way, they pass informal poll booths set up by Colombians.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish, laughter).

OTIS: Toll collectors like Enelbia Pedroso create roadblocks by stretching lengths of rope across the trails then demanding small change from drivers. A mother of five, Pedroso sounds a little sheepish about her new line of work.

ENELBIA PEDROSO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: She used to make a decent living selling snacks to throngs of Venezuelan travelers. But Pedroso says her business dried up when the border shut down.

PEDROSO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "Now look at me," she says. But tough as things are, conditions here on the Colombian side of the border are still better than in Venezuela. That's why some Venezuelans are moving here. Immigration officials say about 65,000 have relocated to Colombia since the land border reopened.

JUAN SUAREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: One recent arrival, Juan Suarez, tells me, "There's nothing in Venezuela - nothing, nothing, nothing. We are in the middle of an enormous crisis."

SUAREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: To support his wife and 16-month-old son, who are back in Venezuela, Suarez sells oranges and limes on the streets of Maicao. Now he's thinking of moving his whole family across the border.

SUAREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: He says Colombia is an escape valve. For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Maicao, Colombia.

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