US launches hospital ship to countries absorbing Venezuelans

By ELLIS RUA, Associated Press

MIAMI - MIAMI (AP) - Vice President Mike Pence declared Tuesday that Venezuela's authoritarian leader "must go" as the U.S. Navy launched a hospital ship on a five-month mission to help Latin American countries struggling to absorb migrants from the crisis-wracked country.

Pence briefly toured the ship at Miami's cruise liner terminal ahead of its Wednesday departure to help Venezuelan migrants in countries including Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic. It will also make stops in Haiti, Jamaica and several other Caribbean nations.

After the tour, the vice president spoke before Venezuelan exiles, who have become an increasing presence in the swing state of Florida, where President Donald Trump chose to announce his reelection campaign later Tuesday in Orlando. Florida is home to an estimated 190,000 Venezuelans, many of whom have found common cause with exiles of other socialist governments such as Cuba and Nicaragua.

"Nicolas Maduro is a dictator with no legitimate claim to power. And Nicolas Maduro must go," Pence said to applause.

The United Nations has said the Venezuelan exodus of recent years is the largest in Latin American history, with the number fleeing the country's humanitarian and political crisis expected to reach 5.3 million by the end of 2019.

"The truth is, the Maduro regime is not only a threat to the people of Venezuela; it's a threat to the security of our hemisphere," Pence said.

Carlos Vecchio, ambassador to Washington for Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, thanked Pence at the event, saying the opposition is grateful for international support to help offset the "man-made disaster" created by Maduro.

Pence said he "marveled" at the facilities aboard the hospital ship, which is expected to treat 300 to 500 patients a day. It is the ship's seventh deployment in the region since 2007.

The U.S. government has placed heavy sanctions on the Venezuelan government and its allies, and has provided more than $213 million in humanitarian assistance to displaced Venezuelans in the region.

Guaidó's opposition government has said it is looking into allegations that members of its party misappropriated funds meant to aid defected military personnel exiled in Colombia. A State Department spokesperson said U.S. officials are aware of the reports and applaud Guaidó's call for transparency and accountability.

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