Noticias de Cucuta

It looked like Black Friday on the Venezuelan-Colombian border last Sunday, as thousands of Venezuelan shoppers took advantage of a brief border opening to flood into Colombia and stock up on basic food and household products that have become nearly impossible to find on store shelves in their own country.

The shopping tsunami occurred as shortages reach critical levels in socialist-run Venezuela, where people regularly make huge lines outside supermarkets in hopes of getting rice, toilet paper, or whatever else has arrived in the store that day.

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“The government has imposed a barbaric situation on us,” said a Venezuelan woman who walked across the border into Colombia to shop on Sunday.

“We are grateful to these soldiers for helping us,” she added, pointing towards a group of Colombian military police officers who helped control the swarm of foot traffic across the border.

According to Colombia's National Immigration Service, some 85,000 Venezuelans crossed into the Colombian city of Cucuta by foot on Sunday, since Venezuela is still restricting vehicle traffic along the border. A border crossing in the smaller city of Arauca handled an additional 3,000 Venezuelan day shoppers.

Most Venezuelans returned home at end of the day with suitcases and shopping bags full of toilet paper, corn flour, chicken and beef. They thanked Colombian authorities and greeted TV cameras on their way out of the country.

Some Colombian policemen even helped shoppers carry their bags across a border bridge connecting the two countries.

One man broke down in tears and hugged a Colombian soldier to thank his country for helping Venezuelans in their time of need.

The Venezuelan government unilaterally shut its border with Colombia last year, in an effort to crack down on smugglers who were buying subsidized goods in Venezuela and selling them in Colombia for a steep profit. Venezuela blamed the smugglers for the product shortages affecting their country.

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But the closed-border strategy has not helped to ease the situation in Venezuela, where protests over food have become a weekly occurrence. Medicine is also in drastically short supply, with stocks down by 85%, according to the national federation of pharmacies.

As an emergency response to these worsening food and medicine shortages, Venezuela has decided to occasionally open its border for one day to allow people to shop in Colombia. Sunday's shopping spree was the second time that the border has been opened in July. Colombian immigration authorities said that they are expecting more border openings in the following weeks.

But opening the border for 12 hours at a time is not going to fix Venezuela's food shortages. Most economists expect the problem to continue while Venezuela keeps on slapping strict price controls on dozens of basic goods.

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The socialist government’s price controls were intended to make goods more affordable to Venezuelan consumers, but instead have made it unprofitable for businesses to import or produce food, thus decreasing the overall supply of goods and spawning a massive black market, where price controlled goods are re-sold at steep prices.

Furthermore, Venezuela's spiraling inflation rate, which is expected to reach 1,600% by next year, according to the latest IMF estimate, means that some goods are now more affordable in Colombia than in Venezuela. And that's just giving Venezuelans another incentive to march across the border to buy their groceries.

Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.