The U.S. is sending a hospital ship to aid in the refugee crisis resulting from instability in Venezuela.
At the annual Washington Conference on the Americas at the State Department, Vice President Mike Pence announced the Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort will deploy to the U.S. Southern Command area of operations next month.
The ship will visit the region to help provide medical services to South America, Central America and the Caribbean — particularly to the areas hosting millions of Venezuelan refugees fleeing the regime of President Nicolas Maduro.
"The USNS Comfort represents our enduring promise to our partners in the Western Hemisphere — our shared neighborhood," said Navy Adm. Craig S. Faller, commander of U.S. Southern Command, which will oversee the deployment. "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."
Earlier in the day, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan met with Colombian Vice President Marta Lucia Ramirez at the Pentagon. The situation in Venezuela was at the top of the agenda. The United States and Colombia have a long and productive relationship, and Shanahan said he looks forward to discussing options in the region with the Colombian delegation.
"Today we will discuss the crisis in Venezuela and how — as regional partners — we can work those in the Venezuelan military leadership who are on the side of the Venezuelan people's democratic movement," he said at the start of the meeting. "Our hemisphere's security is at stake, and rest assured the United States will continue to keep all options on the table to ensure regional security."
An ongoing humanitarian disaster in the region centers on the unrest in Venezuela. Millions of Venezuelans have fled the country. Neighboring countries — most notably Colombia and Brazil — are struggling to provide services for the displaced Venezuelans. The USNS Comfort will help with the effort.
The continuing exodus from Venezuela was brought on by years of mismanagement under Maduro, Shanahan said. The U.S. has provided more than $256 million to the region in humanitarian and development assistance. More will be needed as the country suffers through violence, economic insecurity, hyperinflation, and shortages of food, medicines and essential services. United Nations officials estimate that more than 3 million people have fled the nation and are calling it the largest migration in recent Latin American history. Other Venezuelans are "internally displaced," officials said.
Ramirez pledged to work with the U.S. to preserve democracy in the region. She expanded the concerns to include the role narcotraffickers play in subverting democracy in the region. The Maduro regime, she said, is providing havens for these drug cartels and Colombian rebels.
The USNS Comfort will visit a number of countries in the region.
The ship returned from a deployment to the region in December. The Comfort is a floating full-service hospital. It is crewed by civilian mariners of the Military Sealift Command. The medical staff comes from Navy hospitals across the U.S. They will be augmented by specialists from other services and by medics from nongovernmental organizations.