QUITO, Ecuador (AP) – Colombia and Venezuela agreed Monday to redeploy ambassadors who were withdrawn in a month-old dispute that has paralyzed trade and movement along their border.
The announcement came after the presidents of the two neighbors met in Ecuador's capital for five hours discussing Venezuela's decision to close its border with Colombia and begin deporting Colombian migrants.
The leaders did not announce a reopening of border checkpoints, as some people on the frontier had hoped. They said only that their governments would work toward a gradual normalization of the situation on the border, without explaining what that might look like.
The crisis began when Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro deported 1,500 Colombians migrants he blamed for smuggling that his government contends has helped empty supermarket shelves in the country. An additional 16,000 Colombians, some of whom had lived in Venezuela for years, left voluntarily, fearing reprisals from troops who were seen bulldozing homes and forcing people to flee across a border river with belongings slung on their backs.
Although the deportations and mass exodus of Colombians have stopped, Maduro and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos had been sharpening criticisms of each other, while communities on both sides of the border suffered from the closure of all land crossings along a border five times the length of the one separating France and Germany.
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Maduro accused Santos of being complicit in what he has alleged was a plot hatched by right-wing elements in Colombia and the U.S. to overthrow his socialist government. But he struck a conciliatory tone in his remarks after Monday's meeting, saying common sense and a spirit of mutual cooperation had prevailed.
Santos, who successfully restored relations with Venezuela after his predecessor threatened war with Venezuela's late President Hugo Chávez, had thrown off his habitual restraint and said Maduro's socialist revolution was self-destructing and using tactics employed by Nazi shock troops.
In recent days, Colombia denounced an illegal flyover of three Venezuelan fighter jets as well as an incursion into its territory of a Venezuelan National Guard patrol chasing an individual whose motorcycle they burned when he fled. On the eve of the talks, Maduro announced a plan to purchase 12 new Russian fighter jets.
Monday's meeting was brokered by Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, a close ally of Venezuela, and Uruguay's President Tabaré Vázquez, the current rotating head of the 12-member Union of South American Nations.
Going into the session, Santos had said he held low expectations after two meetings between the countries' foreign ministers failed to produce a breakthrough. Afterward, he said he would work to quell Venezuela's concerns even as he demanded more respect for human rights of Colombian migrants.
"We will do our part to fight contraband, gangs and criminal behavior," Santos said. "We are brother countries."
Foreign ministers from the two countries will continue the negotiations, starting with a meeting Wednesday, according to a mutual statement read by Correa.
While Maduro's tactics have been widely condemned by human rights groups and raised concern by the United Nations, few deny the situation on Venezuela's western border had become chaotic. Until the crackdown, gangs regularly bribed Venezuelan security forces to let them cross the border with gasoline, food and other staples purchased at low government-controlled prices in Venezuela and sold for huge profits in Colombia.
Venezuela says as much as 40 percent of its goods are smuggled out of the country, costing it $2 billion a year.
While economists cast doubt on those figures, Colombian cities along the border that have long relied on contraband are beginning to take a hit and begun implementing a system of rationing. In Cúcuta, where many motorists preferred to fill up with gasoline sold by roadside smugglers, gas stations began restricting sales Monday.
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