Venezuela to let deported Colombians return after border dispute

Reuters News
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Posted: Sep 28, 2015 5:23 PM

CARACAS (Reuters) - President Nicolas Maduro will let over 1,500 deported Colombians return to Venezuela and legalize their status, regional bloc UNASUR said on Monday, in a further easing of tensions between the two South American neighbors.

The 12-country Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) said in a statement Maduro agreed to the measure after a meeting with its secretary general, Ernesto Samper, a former Colombian president, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

The detente comes a week after leftist Maduro and his right-wing Colombian counterpart Juan Manuel Santos met and agreed to restore ambassadors while working towards "normalizing" the turbulent border area.

That followed weeks of diplomatic acrimony after Maduro in August shut border crossings with Colombia in what he called a crackdown on smuggling and crime. Around 1,608 Colombians were deported and another 17,000 voluntarily returned to their homeland, according to the United Nations.

Hundreds waded across a border river with fridges, chickens and mattresses on their backs. The deportations sparked outcry from Bogota and international rights groups, and even drew surprising comparisons between Maduro and U.S. Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump.

It remains to be seen whether the shaken deportees will want to return to Venezuela, which is mired in a spiraling economic crisis where basic goods such as toilet paper and bottled water are running low.

Maduro's critics say he is blaming poor Colombian immigrants for contraband of price-controlled goods and violence, when in fact responsibility lies with his decaying state-led economic model and failure to crack down on violent crime.

He says Venezuela was taking legitimate action against smugglers and paramilitaries, and has for decades shown its generosity to Colombia by taking war refugees and economic migrants. About 5.6 million Colombians live in Venezuela.

(Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Alan Crosby)