US Navy hospital ship begins 5-month deployment to help Venezuela refugees

Vice President Mike Pence sends off the ship from Miami on Tuesday.

Vice President Mike Pence will send off the ship from PortMiami in Florida on Tuesday, alongside Carlos Vecchio, the Venezuelan ambassador to the United States, and Navy Adm. Craig Faller, commander of U.S. Southern Command.

The Comfort left its home port of Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia earlier this month and will make scheduled stops in Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Grenada, Haiti, Jamaica, Panama, Saint Lucia, and St. Kitts and Nevis.

Earlier this month, the United Nations announced that the number of Venezuelan refugees had grown to 4 million, making Venezuelans "one of the single largest population groups displaced from their country," the UN said. Colombia had the highest number of Venezuelan refugees and migrants with about 1.3 million, followed by over 750,000 in Peru.

"The ship's embarked medical teams will provide care on board and at land-based medical sites, helping to relieve pressure on national medical systems strained partly by an increase in displaced Venezuelans," SOUTHCOM said in a statement. "The region is currently experiencing an ever-worsening humanitarian crisis due to the ongoing political and economic instability in Venezuela."

In a bitter feud with the U.S., Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has long-refused all American aid. Much of the international community, including the U.S., now recognizes opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country's interim president and has called for Maduro to step down in order for democratic elections to take place.

In late April, Venezuelans took to the streets in protest of the Maduro regime, but the embattled leader has held onto power, backed by Russia, Cuba and China.

The deployment of a Navy hospital ship has been the Pentagon's sole visible response to the growing crisis -- with the U.S. hoping economic sanctions and diplomatic efforts will pave the way for regime change. But the Trump administration has emphasized that all options -- including military ones -- are on the table.

Meanwhile, talks held in Norway last month between the Venezuelan government and the opposition have stalled.

"This deployment responds directly to the man-made crisis Maduro's regime has created," Adm. Faller told the Defense Department's news service this week. "Comfort medical teams will be working alongside host nation medical professionals who are absorbing thousands of Venezuelan migrants and refugees. The Venezuelan people are desperately fleeing their homeland for hope of a better way of life. We are committed to finding ways to support the Venezuelan people and our regional partners who share the goal of seeing a legitimate, democratic government reinstated in Venezuela."

The Comfort returned from its last humanitarian mission to South America in December, after seeing tens of thousands of patients and completing hundreds of surgeries.

This new mission will be the hospital ship's seventh deployment to the region since 2007.

There will be about 1,000 people on board the Comfort, including about 200 credentialed medical professionals. There's also the possibility for as many as 100 medical providers from non-profit organizations, as well as other host nations, that may join the ship during its stops, the commanding officer of the Comfort's Medical Treatment Facility told the Department of Defense's news service.

The Comfort's surgical and medical services include X-rays, CAT scans, dental services, an optometry and lens laboratory, a physical therapy center and a pharmacy. The ship also maintains up to 5,000 units of blood for medical services.