Three weeks after a Chinese hospital ship visited Venezuelan shores, the USNS Comfort, sailed from Norfolk, VA to South American waters last week, in a humanitarian mission that doesn’t include Venezuela, but still revolves around the hemisphere’s newest failed state. Besides the typical U.S. Navy medical crew, the Mercy-class hospital ship carries a dozen Venezuelan doctors living in the United States who volunteered to help refugees compatriots, as posted by the Associated Press last friday.
“This is like a Band-Aid that will provide only temporary relief,” said Dr. Marco Bologna, a cardiologist who now lives in Florida, where he’s a member of the Venezuelan American Medical Association. “But it’s the right thing to do and it helps us do something for our country.”
Bologna is one of over 1,000 civilian doctors who applied for a room in the ship after the Venezuelan-American Medical Association (VAMA) started recruiting volunteers last August, just two weeks after the ship’s visit was announced by U.S. authorities. Finally, only a dozen Venezuelan doctors were admitted, due to the ship’s limited capacity.
In South America, the ship will visit Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, three of the top destinations for Venezuelan refugees.
“What we’re doing here has a limited scope,” said Dr. Rafael Gottenger, a plastic surgeon on the mission. “But it’s good to be able to help your people.”
According to UN estimates, almost 2 million Venezuelans have left the country since 2015, most of them are living in neighboring South American countries. With 1,000 hospital beds and 12 operation rooms, the Comfort is able to see some 750 patients per day, a remarkable number, but still not enough to help all the refugees in need. In South America, the ship will visit Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, three of the top destinations for Venezuelan refugees; before departing to Honduras. This isn’t a coincidence, as U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis described the mission as a gesture of the U.S. to help relieve the strain put by Venezuelan refugees on neighboring countries’ already fragile health systems.
“Each of the countries that we will spot was closely consulted. We’ve worked closely with them to ensure that we’re providing the right care, at the right time, and at the right locations,” said Coast Guard Rear Adm. Steven Poullin, director of operations at the U.S. Southern Command. “Obviously one of the factors that we considered was the Venezuelan crisis and the opportunity to treat Venezuelan migrants.”
Most of the Venezuelan patients are expected to be treated during the Comfort’s stay in Riohacha, a port north of the Colombian Guajira, less than an hour by car from the Venezuelan border, where it’s expected to stay for five days.
The Comfort’s mission deliberately adds more pressure to the already strained relationships between Colombia and Venezuela, and coincides with increasing military presence along their border.
According to the Venezuelan regime and its propaganda outlets, the Comfort’s journey is a threat, an opinion shared by Maduro’s strongest ally in the region, Evo Morales, who called the mission a “covert invasion to Venezuela”. Last month, Venezuela reacted to Mattis’s announcement receiving the China’s Peace Ark, a smaller hospital ship that stayed one week in the country. According to government sources, the Chinese ship treated 1,000 patients, but many reported segregation from chavista grassroot groups in charge of admitting patients.
Besides giving Venezuelan doctors abroad a unique opportunity to help its displaced compatriots, the Comfort’s mission deliberately adds more pressure to the already strained relationships between Colombia and Venezuela, and coincides with both countries increasing military presence along their border. It also acts a proof of the United States’ commitment to help its regional allies deal with the humanitarian crisis created by Maduro’s regime, and a reminder to China and Venezuela that the Northern neighbor won’t easily give up its influence in South America.