Venezuela’s economic collapse turns this border stop into a boomtown

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(This post originally appeared on The Washington Post)

His name is Dicson and, according to this report on Al Jazeera he has 1.4 million Venezuelan Bolivars – or about $141,000 – stuffed under the backseat of his car.  A shopkeeper, he brings “stacks and stacks” of money back to his hometown every day where he exchanges the bills for Colombian pesos with a black market money dealer. It’s unclear whether he makes this kind of money every day. But one thing’s for sure – he’s doing well.

And so are a lot of shopkeepers in Puerto Santande, a town in Colombia that borders Venezuela. Venezuelans are suffering from hard economic times brought on by plummeting oil prices and political turmoil. Many food items are in short supply, lines are long and inflation is high. Over the summer, the country opened its borders with Colombia to allow its citizens to buy basic staples.

Puerto Santander is a wild place, says the Al Jazeera report. Unlike other checkpoints, the border there is open so thousands of Venezuelans walk through each day without waiting and with no paperwork. There’s oppressive heat, dusty roads and smugglers and violent incidents are common. People “get what they need and get out.” It’s not a good situation for them.

But for the shopkeepers in the town, business has never been better. Stores are fully stocked where shoppers crowd in from early morning until late at night. Fierce competition keeps the merchants from overcharging, but costs are lower now that shopkeepers don’t have to pay smugglers to take their goods over the border.

It’s a good situation for entrepreneurs like the 47-year-old Dicson and his wife, who runs the shop while he ferries the cash home.  He allegedly has to stop at a couple of checkpoints where he pays the guards the equivalent of $3 to pass through without being searched. It’s a small price to pay, considering what he carries.

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