White Boat, Red Flags

It sure is a great coincidence that mere days after Maduro’s trip to China and after the U.S. sent their USNS Comfort to the Colombian shore, Venezuelan waters are now hosting China’s Peace Ark, their own hospital ship.

Photo: retrieved

A huge white boat adorns the usually half-empty docks of La Guaira since last weekend, changing the crisis-shaped landscape of Venezuela’s once lively commercial port. It’s not a cruise, of course, but a Chinese hospital ship that arrived to Venezuelan waters on September 22.

The boat’s arrival was quite a show, not only because it was escorted by Venezuelan Navy warships and fighters, and welcomed by girls dancing in folkloric dresses, but because it represents a not-so-subtle acknowledgement of the terrible health crisis affecting the country, and more importantly, a reminder of the role China is willing to play in the development of the Venezuelan crisis.

With 300 beds, eight fully-functional operating rooms and a helicopter, the 14000-ton boat is much better equipped than any Venezuelan hospital, even its bright, pristine white paint contrasts with the dirty halls where thousands of patients die every day, lacking the most basic medicines inland. The Peace Ark, like the People’s Liberation Army Navy Daishan Dao type 920 hospital ship was called during peacetime, was first commissioned in 2008, and has since visited places like Tanzania, Djibouti, Bangladesh, Jamaica, Costa Rica and Gabon, usually following natural disasters or humanitarian crises, like in its 2013 visit to the Philippines, after the archipelago was hit by typhoon Haiyan, leaving over 6,000 people dead.

But Vladimir Padrino, who received the boat crew after it docked in La Guaira, quickly tried to minimize any link between the boat’s arrival and the evident crisis that rendered the Venezuelan health system useless, saying that the ship’s objective is to “share medical knowledge, doctrines and philosophies” while contradictorily admitting that the boat will also offer medical attention to Venezuelan and Colombian patients “without discrimination”; even though some people denounced being denied access to the boat, since only chavista grassroot groups like communal councils control the patients selection process.

On September 25, Rey Mozo, a journalist from local news outlet Efecto Cocuyo was held in custody for a few hours by State security forces because he was interviewing some of these patients.

But the Peace Ark visit is also remarkable for its timing.

It happened just a few days after Maduro’s latest visit to China (in which he seems to have assured a fresh $5 billion credit line in still undisclosed terms) and more importantly, only a month after U.S. Defense Secretary, James Mattis announced the U.S. would send their own hospital ship, USNS Comfort, to Colombia as part of its effort to help Venezuelan migrants in the country, something that was perceived by Venezuelan military officers as a threat.

In this sense, the arrival of the Peace Ark to Venezuelan shores can be read more like a show of strength from China, rather than a purely humanitarian measure. All of this in the middle of increasing rumors regarding an hypothetical U.S.-supported military intervention in Venezuela in the near future.

Padrino himself stated that the visit was part of the “government’s strategic defense operation” while posing with some heavily armed members of the Chinese Navy aboard the ship.

Unsurprisingly, shortly after Mattis’s announcement, the Comfort was called “an instrument of war” by Telesur, the same outlet that now embraces the arrival of the Peace Ark.

According to Nicolás Maduro, the Peace Ark will remain docked in La Guaira until next saturday, when it’ll continue its journey to Grenada and Ecuador. As of today, all we know is that the crew on the ship received a group of doctors from Caracas Military Hospital, but there’s no information on the number of patients treated.

Even if this boat actually helps some people, its visit will hardly make any difference for most of those affected by the pervasive health crisis affecting the country. On the other hand, it’s more a preview of the more active role that China seems to be taking in defending the Maduro regime, its largest bet into expanding its influence in South America, while undermining the United States.

A red flag warning on the complex developing that the Venezuelan situation may take in the following months, and its generally understated global consequences.

Juan Carlos Gabaldón

Medical doctor from Merida, currently studying Medical Parasitology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine