Pushed to act, U.S. to send military hospital ship toward Venezuela

Under pressure to take military action in Venezuela, the Pentagon will deploy a military hospital ship to the region to help care for Venezuelan refugees.

Vice President Mike Pence, speaking at a gathering of Latin American diplomats at the State Department, announced the USNS Comfort will be dispatched in June for a five-month humanitarian mission to the Caribbean, Central America and South America.

“United States military and medical personnel, working alongside their counterparts from across the region, will provide medical assistance to communities in need and help relieve countries overwhelmed by the influx of people fleeing Venezuela,” Pence said during his address to the 49th Annual Washington Conference on the Americas.

Amid the uncertainty following an unsuccessful opposition uprising in Venezuela, the Trump administration has been scrambling for new ideas to increase pressure on the government of Nicolás Maduro.

Last week, Juan Guaidó, whom the United States considers the legitimate president of Venezuela, stood in front of armed military officers and called for Venezuelans to join him for the “final phase” of an effort to take physical control of the government. But Guaidó was unable to rally enough support from the Venezuelan military, and after days of violence in street protests, Maduro has held control of the military and government offices.

It was one year ago that the Trump administration first publicly called for regime change in Venezuela at last year’s Conference on the Americas.

Pence reiterated President Donald Trump’s recent comments that the United States can take stronger measures against Venezuela. But current and former officials tell McClatchy they see few concrete options that would have a dramatic impact on the ground other than military action or some type of internal revolt.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told reporters Tuesday the decision to send the military hospital ship came after careful discussion with Navy Adm. Craig Faller, commander of U.S. Southern Command. The military leaders had met with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton last week.

“The message I want to make sure comes across is that we are very well coordinated and disciplined and have a broad set of contingency plans,” Shanahan said. “It’s very hard to predict the future, right? And so for every single option you want to have a plan. I think we’ll do some good coordination and communication today to kind of validate the work that’s in front of us.”

U.S. Southern Command announced the hospital ship would depart from Norfolk, Virginia, in June and sail to Latin America and Central America to address the humanitarian fallout from Venezuela ‘s “political and economic crisis.”

“U.S. Southern Command is committed to the region in support of our Caribbean and Latin American partners, as well as displaced Venezuelans who continue to flee the brutal oppression of the former Maduro regime and its interlocking, man-made political, economic and humanitarian crises,” Faller said in a statement.

Pence said the United States will continue to exert all diplomatic and economic pressure to ensure a peaceful transition to democracy in Venezuela. He called on allies around the world to speak with a unified voice to help the Venezuelan people.

Colombian Vice President Marta Ramirez, who met with Shanahan at the Pentagon on Tuesday, said the Colombian government stands against Maduro’s government.

“They did not take power through democracy, they took power through force,” Ramirez said. “They are in power not only because of the support of some in the Venezuelan military but also because of the support of people from abroad. For us in Colombia, this is an issue of security. It’s an issue of stability. It’s an issue of the future of our democracy and our values. For us, it’s something serious.”

In a joint statement later that further emphasized standing together in opposition to Maduro, Shanahan and Ramirez said: “The U.S.-Colombia defense relationship is stronger than ever. Together we stand committed to resolving the humanitarian crisis in our hemisphere, in stark contrast with malign foreign attempts to interfere militarily. We look forward to the day we can rebuild a relationship with Venezuela’s military.”

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, Sen. Rick Scott, and U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart joined Venezuelan, Colombian, and Cuban community leaders throughout South Florida to speak to the media about the need for U.S. military support to supply humanitarian aid while defending freedom and democracy in Venezuela. They were gathered at Las Vegas Cuban Cuisine restaurant in Doral, Florida, on Friday, May 3, 2019. Daniel A. Varela

At the conference, Sen. Marco Rubio, who is seen as one of Trump’s principal advisers on Western Hemisphere issues, was awarded the Chairman’s Award for Leadership in the Americas. During his acceptance speech, Rubio called on more nations to revoke the visas of family members of officials in Maduro’s government.

Rubio, a Florida Republican, said the families of most senior Venezuelan leaders no longer live in Venezuela and singled out Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López, whose family lives in Spain.

“If nations really want to do something about this, then revoke the visas of these people who are living off the stolen money, stolen from the people of Venezuela,” Rubio said. “In particular, I don’t know if they’re here today, I don’t mean to pick on, but Spain has a lot of these visas. President [Pedro] Sánchez, has the power to go after these visas, not to mention the millions of dollars stashed in those bank accounts.”

Pence said the United States has provided more than $260 million in aid and sent more than 500 metric tons of food and humanitarian supplies to the border, where it is ready for distribution.

The United States has also sanctioned more than 150 government officials and state-owned businesses in Venezuela, but Pence said those sanctions can be lifted for those who step away from Maduro.

He pointed to General Manuel Cristopher Figuera, the former chief of the Venezuelan intelligence service, who last week broke ranks with the Maduro government.

“In recognition of his recent actions in support of democracy and the rule of law, I am announcing today that the United States is removing all sanctions on General Manuel Cristopher Figuera effective immediately,” Pence said.

Franco Ordoñez is a White House correspondent for the McClatchy Washington Bureau with a focus on immigration and foreign affairs. He previously covered Latin American affairs for the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald. He moved to Washington in 2011 after six years at the Charlotte Observer covering immigration and working on investigative projects for The Charlotte Observer.
Tara Copp is the national military and veterans affairs correspondent for McClatchy. She has reported extensively through the Middle East, Asia and Europe to cover defense policy and its impact on the lives of service members. She was previously the Pentagon bureau chief for Military Times and a senior defense analyst for the U.S. Government Accountability Office. She is the author of the award-winning book “The Warbird: Three Heroes. Two Wars. One Story.”