Thousands of Venezuelans have been crossing into Colombia to buy food and medicine after the opening of five pedestrian border crossings.
Venezuela and Colombia opened several “provisional” border crossing points on Saturday for pedestrians for the first time in nearly a year as part of a progressive reopening agreed on this week.
As of 6am local time, the authorities opened a total of five crossing points in the Venezuelan towns of Tachira, Apure, Zulia and Amazonas.
During three temporary border openings last month, some 150,000 Venezuelans – suffering from their country’s severe economic crisis – poured into Colombia to purchase food, medicine and other basics.
Early on Saturday, the flow of pedestrians was relatively light across the Simon Bolivar Bridge from Tachira to the Colombian city of Cucuta, but longer lines began to develop as the day wore on.
Both governments agreed to facilitate “the fastest possible movement of people, rapidly but in a controlled fashion”, Jose Morantes Torres, Venezuela’s regional military chief, said.
Thursday’s agreement by Presidents Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela and Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia called for the border to be opened 15 hours a day.
Maduro had ordered the border’s closure in August 2015 following an armed attack on a Venezuelan military patrol that left three soldiers wounded.
It was blamed on Colombian paramilitaries.
The 2,200km border has long been plagued by drug and contraband smuggling, another reason Maduro had cited for last year’s closing.
Thursday’s agreement also called for an exchange of customs information to help stem fuel smuggling.
Venezuela’s government hopes that the border opening is going to improve the living conditions of Venezuelans.
“This is an effort by the Maduro government to relieve the pressure building up massively in Venezuela, Eric Farnsworth, vice president at the Council of the Americas, told Al Jazeera.
“A pressure release valve, if you will. At least to temporise, to ameliorate the bad economic circumstances at least for the short term.
“It will have nothing to do with changing Venezuela’s overall economy.”
Since Maduro became president in 2013 after Hugo Chavez died of cancer, the economy has been hit with shortages and skyrocketing inflation.
The collapse of global crude prices have worsened the economy of the Latin American nation with the world’s largest oil reserves.
At the moment the inflation rate is at triple-digits and shops lack the most basic supplies from food to medicines.
‘Not fit for Mercosur presidency’
Maduro, who has just announced a 50-percent minimum wage increase, is losing friends regionally, with a centre-right government now in power in Brazil and Argentina.
Venezuela is due to assume regional trading bloc Mercosur’s rotating presidency, but Brazil and Argentina say the Maduro government is not meeting legal and human rights standards.
The political tension, shortages and enforced electricity blackouts have raised fears of unrest in the country, already ranked by the UN as one of the most violent in the world.