By REGINA GARCIA CANO
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The governments of Venezuela and Colombia took a step toward normalizing ties Monday when President Nicolás Maduro hosted an event to welcome the newly appointed ambassador from the neighboring country, a post that had been empty since 2019 over a diplomatic impasse.
Colombian Ambassador Armando Benedetti met with Maduro a day after arriving in Venezuela. He was designated to the post by new President Gustavo Petro, who abandoned his conservative predecessor’s opposition to Maduro and vowed to re-establish relations with his government.
Maduro and Benedetti met at the Miraflores Palace in the capital, Caracas.
Colombia, for decades the region’s strongest ally of the United States, was among dozens of countries that withdrew recognition of Maduro as Venezuela’s legitimate leader after his 2018 re-election, which they argued was fraudulent.
Petro, Colombia’s first leftist president, and Maduro have expressed willingness to build a new stage of cooperation, including the reopening of border crossing bridges to commercial traffic, the renewal of military collaboration to ease tensions in areas where armed groups operate and the resumption of Colombian consular services in Venezuela.
Venezuela’s ambassador to Colombia, Felix Plasencia, also arrived at his post Sunday.
Maduro expelled all Colombian diplomats in February 2019. He maintains that former Colombian President Iván Duque for years promoted plans to topple his government.
Neither Maduro nor Benedetti made public statements immediately after their meeting. Benedetti earlier said he would speak with Maduro about a presidential meeting with Petro.
In 2010, when tensions ran high between the countries, a visit by Maduro’s mentor and predecessor, the late President Hugo Chávez, to Colombia led to improved relations. Colombia’s then-President Juan Manuel Santos even called Chávez his “new best friend.”
However, Ronal Rodríguez, a researcher at the Rosario University’s Venezuela Observatory, told The Associated Press that a meeting between Petro and Maduro in Colombia today could be more complex.
“There could be protests from the Venezuelan population in Colombia,” Rodríguez said. Of the more than 6 million Venezuelans who have left their country as a result of a protracted crisis, about 2 million live in Colombia.
Duque supported the economic sanctions the U.S. and European Union imposed on Venezuela and repeatedly accused Maduro of protecting some Colombian rebels. Maduro, meanwhile, accused Duque’s government of allowing people within Colombia to plot against Venezuela.
Colombia and Venezuela share a border of about 1,370 miles (2,200 kilometers). Bandits, drug traffickers, paramilitary groups and guerrillas take advantage of the remote and desolate landscape to operate, though that did not deter legal trade before Maduro ordered the closure of official border crossing points in 2015.
Maduro ordered the border shutdown as a result of an attack suffered by three soldiers and a civilian in a border town when they were carrying out anti-smuggling operations. Foot traffic eventually resumed, and some cargo continued to move through the northern most bridge.
Goods have continued to enter Venezuela illegally over dirt roads manned by armed groups and others with the blessing of officials on both sides of the border. Similarly, illegal imports also enter Colombia, but on a smaller scale. On any given day, men slog loads of soft drinks, avocado and other produce, cooking oil and other goods on carts, bicycles, motorcycles and their own backs down illegal roads.
Sanctioned trade, however, would flow at a much higher rate.
The commercial exchange that in 2014 reached $2.4 billion was reduced last year to about $406 million, of which $331 million were imports from Colombia, according to the Chamber of Venezuelan-Colombian Economic Integration. The group, based in Caracas, estimates this year’s activity could reach $800 million if the border remains closed but could go as high as $1.2 billion if the crossings reopen to vehicles.
The Venezuelan government has estimated that the commercial exchange within a year of a fully reopened border could exceed $4 billion.
Juan Guaidó, the leader of the U.S.-backed opposition who had the full support of Duque, criticized Benedetti for not addressing a variety of subjects, including Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis, immigration and lack of electoral conditions, upon his arrival.
“Today, the ambassador is (in Caracas), appointed by a democratically elected president,” Guaidó tweeted. “We, Venezuelans, are fighting for that right.”