A U.S. Navy hospital ship leaves Norfolk, Virginia, Thursday on a mission that means a lot to people here in South Florida. It hopes to help bring relief to the worst migrant refugee crisis in modern South American history.
For the next 11 weeks, the naval hospital ship USNS Comfort will visit ports in Ecuador, Peru, Colombia and Honduras. The first three stops were planned largely to bring medical treatment to the millions of Venezuelan migrants escaping their country’s economic collapse – the world’s worst today.
Those refugees are overwhelming health and social services in neighboring South American countries – especially Colombia, where Comfort will visit two Caribbean ports, Turbo and Riohacha. The latter is close to Colombia’s eastern border with Venezuela.
“Comfort is a sign of our enduring commitment to the region," said Coast Guard Rear Admiral Steven Poulin, director of operations for the U.S. military’s Southern Command, or Southcom, based in Doral.
"Certainly the Venezuelan crisis was a planning factor on where we stopped – relieving the pressure on the medical systems of those countries as well. But this is about need, not nationality.”
Venezuelan expat groups in South Florida had urged Defense Secretary James Mattis to deploy the Comfort, which has made five previous visits to Latin America, because Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis includes severe shortages of food and even basic medicines like antibiotics.
When WLRN visited Colombia this year, U.N. World Food Program directors pointed to acute malnutrition among Venezuelan refugees, especially children. Admiral Poulin said the ship should be able to alleviate the suffering there.
“We estimate that we can see about 750 patients per day, and probably do 20 surgeries per day on average," he said. "A full suite of medical services. Certainly nutrition will be part of that effort.”
The U.S. has not had to shoulder the Venezuelan refugee burden. In fact, it has made it harder for Venezuelans to receive U.S. visas. So it’s raising its aid to countries that are absorbing the exodus – about $55 million so far.
But Poulin emphasized those countries’ own citizens will also be served by Comfort.
“We worked very closely with our partner countries on where we could provide the best medical care to the most needy communities," he said.
Poulin also said the humanitarian mission hopes to help improve medical services and infrastructure in those countries.
"It's a great opportunity to exchange ideas, learn new techniques and have a chance at professional development."
He added most of Comfort's medical work will be done onshore rather than onboard.