With a bright white hospital ship ready to set sail to aid Venezuelan refugees as a backdrop, Vice President Mike Pence thanked its crew and repeatedly called for Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro’s regime to end.
The USNS Comfort is scheduled to leave Port Miami early Wednesday morning for a five-month trip to 10 Caribbean, Central American and South American countries where millions of Venezuelan refugees have fled from the political and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. Many of those refugees are children who have never received medical care before, officials said. The UN reported more than 4 million people have left what was once considered the richest country in Latin America.
“Nicolás Maduro is a dictator with no legitimate claim to power,” Pence said during a press conference at PortMiami Tuesday afternoon. “And Nicolás Maduro must go.”
When asked about U.S. intervention, Pence said that “all options are on the table.”
This is the second medical aid mission trip the Comfort has made to the region in six months. Pence, Venezuelan ambassador Carlos Vecchio, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alec Azar and Adm. Craig Faller, commander of the U.S. Southern Command, spoke to local government officials, military personnel and Venezuelan-Americans about the ship’s mission and making sure Maduro falls from power.
“This team of teams is ready. Estámos listos. They’re ready to go, and they’re ready to make a difference,” Faller said.
The Comfort, which has about 950 crew and medical personnel on board, will visit Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Grenada, Haiti, Jamaica, Panama, Saint Lucia, and St. Kitts and Nevis. At each 10-day stop, more than 200 patients a day are expected, said head nurse and U.S. Navy Captain Kevin Buss.
The floating hospital includes a blood bank, intensive care units, operations rooms and CAT scan equipment, and offers pediatric services, dental care, surgeries, dermatology, women’s health services and optometry screenings, Buss said. The ship’s crew works with local government health ministries to determine what care is needed.
The exodus of Venezuelan migrants and refugees is unprecedented in the Western Hemisphere. More than 1 million settled in Colombia and 770,000 in Peru, while thousands more are scattered throughout the region.
The Trump administration has been vocal in its support of Maduro’s opponent, interim president Juan Guaidó, Pence said. He emphasized the U.S. was first to recognize Guaidó as president and will continue to support his government.
“Know this: Under President Donald Trump, we will continue to stand strong until freedom, democracy and rule of law are restored,” Pence said. Members of the crowd shouted, “Amen!”
Vecchio, who praised Pence as a “friend to Venezuelans,” said Maduro must be removed from office in order for legitimate democratic elections to begin. But that will only happen if demonstrations continue in the streets of Venezuela and when the international community, particularly the European Union, puts pressure on Maduro through sanctions, Vecchio told the Miami Herald.
“This is an ongoing process,” he said. “We have been climbing the mountain every single day, and we are very close to the peak.”
© 2019 Miami Herald
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