US hospital ship on mission to aid Venezuela refugees

Miami (AFP) –


US Navy hospital ship the USNS Comfort sets out this week to the Caribbean and Latin America as part of a mission to help Venezuelan migrants, Vice President Mike Pence announced Tuesday.

Pence and Admiral Craig Fuller, head of US Southern Command, joined a group of Venezuelans at a Miami pier where the ship is docked to draw attention to the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela.

"We are with you," Pence said in Spanish, to shouts of "Amen!" from the Venezuelans.

The deployment, slated to begin Thursday, would be the ship's second mission to the region in six months to render medical assistance to Venezuelan refugees.

During a five-month voyage, the Comfort will make stops in Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Grenada, Haiti, Jamaica, Panama, the Dominican Republic, St. Lucia and St Kitts and Nevis.

An estimated 3.3 million people have left Venezuela, many on foot through neighboring countries, propelled by a worsening political and economic crisis.

Pence blamed the debacle on the socialist policies of Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro who has so far survived a US-backed push to oust him from power.

Maduro in turn blames Washington, which has placed sanctions on the regime, for the virtual collapse of the country's once rich, oil-fueled economy.

The US and some 60 other countries recognize opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country's interim president, but opposition attempts to spark a coup have failed and many of its leaders are in prison or exile.