Mérida, October 2, 2007 (venezuelanalysis.com)- At least
seven people have been wounded, including three police officers, due to the
violent confrontations in Cucuta, Colombia, near the border with Venezuela. The
conflict erupted after Venezuelan and Colombian truckers and merchants blocked
roads connecting the two countries in protest of a toll put in place by the
Colombian government. The Colombian government, however, has refused to remove
the toll, insisting that it is necessary.
Truck drivers are demanding the removal of a toll put in
place on the Colombian side of the border, claiming that it makes it too
expensive to transport goods back and forth between the two countries. Protests
have been off and on at the border for the last three months, but it wasn't
until Monday of last week that protesters began to block passage at several
different border crossings. Groups could be seen throwing rocks and burning
things in the street and up to 5 cars have been burnt so far.
"We usually make three trips a day. This is harmful fur
us, since now we are practically working just to pay the toll," said one
protestor. "Besides, we are demonstrating to support fellow truckers who
are starting protests at other border passages. Authorities in both countries
have mistreated us, and it's not fair."
Things heated up when the protests were met with a reaction
from Colombian police. Riot units tried to break up the protests by firing tear
gas into the crowds. At least 3 police officers were wounded and 4 civilians in
the clashes that ensued.
"Neither the Colombian nor the Venezuelan government
has helped us. If they just remove the toll booths, there won't be any more
strikes. That is why the people are outraged," said a local bus driver.
The situation has also been caused by a jump in gasoline
prices in Colombia.
The price recently doubled, making it that much harder on truck drivers and those
involved in transporting goods between the two countries.
According to the local governor, the standstill of border
traffic that is now entering its second week has caused estimated losses of 10
to 15 million dollars a day in trade between the countries. But Colombian
authorities have stated that the toll cannot be eliminated because the funds
are needed by the Colombian government for local infrastructure and roadwork.
"The toll charges will continue," said the
Colombian Transportation Minister last week, adding that withdrawing the policy
would be a "catastrophe for Colombia," which needs private
investment to expand its infrastructure in the region.
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe affirmed this week that his
government would not remove the tolls, explaining that contracts had already
been given to several construction companies to work on the roads in the border
state. The road construction will be paid for with the income from the tolls,
making their removal impossible, he explained.
"Not to say this harshly, but the government is not
going to remove the tolls," said President Uribe. "How would our
government look if we ended the [construction] contracts?"
Uribe asked for understanding and explained that while Venezuela has oil incomes to pay for infrastructure,
doesn't have the resources to pay for the necessary work. The government has
already significantly reduced the original toll from around US$10 to about US$1
and now charges the toll in only one direction, instead of both ways. But protest
leaders have maintained that the border crossing will be blocked until the
government removes the tolls entirely.
"We will keep the roads closed until they remove
the tolls," said truck driver union leader Celestino Moreno. "We have
been deceived by the Colombian government."