CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela's widespread gasoline shortages are starting to affect some cities in Colombia, where drivers depend on cheap fuel smuggled in from their socialist-governed neighbor.
Residents of the Colombian border city of Cucuta lined up for several hours outside local gas stations on Wednesday to fill their tanks fearing that shortages will get worse.
"This is going to make everything more expensive" said Teofilo Fernandez, a retired journalist who queued for four and a half hours at a Cucuta gas station to fill up his white Mazda sedan. "We have become accustomed to subsidized gas, and these changes are going to have a negative impact."
Drivers in Cucuta and other cities along the border often buy gasoline from street vendors who have the fuel smuggled from Venezuela, where government subsidies keep prices at almost zero, allowing the smugglers to profit even when they sell it in Colombia below official prices.
But Venezuela's gasoline shortages have left street vendors and smugglers with almost no fuel to sell in the black market, and have sent thousands of drivers and motorcycle owners to legal gas stations that are now struggling to meet demand.
Maria Eugenia Martinez, director of the association of gas stations for the border state of North Santander, said her organization is asking Colombia's government to increase the amount of gas that is sold each month to the region at subsidized prices.
Martinez said Cucuta and North Santander are allotted 10.5 million gallons of subsidized fuel a month by Colombia's Ministry of Energy, but she said they now need at least 14 million gallons each month to make up for the shortages of illegally imported Venezuelan fuel.
While gasoline in Cucuta costs around $2.25 a gallon, in Venezuela fuel is so cheap that the tank of a large sedan can be filled up for less than a penny. But U.S. sanctions on Venezuela's state-run oil company, combined with years of economic mismanagement and decaying refineries, have made fuel increasingly hard to come by.
Across the border from Cucuta, in the Venezuelan state of Tachira, lines outside gas stations stretch for miles, and drivers report waiting up to four days to fill their tanks.
The situation has created ample opportunities for corruption, with gas station personnel reportedly taking bribes in U.S. dollars and Colombian pesos from desperate drivers who want to skip queues.
Lines in Cucuta are shorter than those on the Venezuelan side of the border. But residents of the border city say the shortages are already affecting the local economy, by raising the prices of taxi rides and decreasing the frequency of some bus routes.