A shipment of humanitarian aid by the United States that flew out of Miami landed in this Colombian border city on Saturday as part of efforts in response to the humanitarian crisis in neighboring Venezuela.
The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Department of State coordinated the shipment, which was transported on three military planes from an air base in Homestead. The C-17 planes arrived in the afternoon in Cúcuta, where they were met by USAID Administrator Mark Green and representatives of appointed Venezuelan leader Juan Guaidó, the president of the National Assembly who is now recognized as interim president by the U.S. and nearly 60 other countries.
Trump plans to address the Venezuelan crisis during a gathering in Miami on Monday.
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The three planes carried around 180 tons of aid. Flights will continue next week, Steve Olive, assistant administrator for Latin America at USAID, told el Nuevo Herald. An el Nuevo Herald reporter was one of only a handful of journalists who accompanied the flight.
The aid from the United States has primarily gone to Cúcuta but “plans are in the works” to position some of that aid in Curacao.
Olive said USAID plans to participate in the distribution of the aid inside Venezuela, “once it is safe” to do so. USAID officials are coordinating daily with Guaidó’s team and relying on them to identify groups inside Venezuela that could distribute the aid to those in need. But so far, he said, there’s fear among these groups that they could be targeted by the Maduro regime.
“That’s why Maduro and the military need to stand down,” he added.
During a meeting at a border warehouse Saturday with Colombian officials and members of Venezuela’s National Assembly, led by Guaidó, Green of USAID said the humanitarian aid was a temporary fix. The real problem, he said, is “Maduro and his cronies.”
The delivery of international humanitarian aid to Venezuelans has become a test of power for Guaidó. At an international conference held in Washington on Friday, his representatives announced the commitment of several countries to raise $100 million. The United States has allocated close to $140 million to support countries such as Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Panama, among others, which have given refuge to more than three million Venezuelans who have fled the country in search of food, medicine and work.
One day after Guaidó took over the presidency on Jan. 23, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced an additional $20 million for humanitarian aid, and there will be more, Elliot Abrams, the special envoy for Venezuela at the State Department, said in Washington.
The shipment includes high energy nutritional food to treat an estimated 3,500 malnourished children for two months. It also contains hygiene kits with toothpaste, sanitary towels, soap and other personal hygiene products. Aid already in Cúcuta includes medical emergency kits in addition to food and hygiene products.
Additional aid is ready to be shipped from Miami and Houston, officials said. A collection drive is scheduled to take place from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m on Sunday at 11421 NW 107th Ave., in Doral.
Lester Toledo, appointed by Guaidó to oversee the distribution of humanitarian aid, said help will reach Venezuela from aid collection points set up in three countries: Roraima, Brazil; Cúcuta, Colombia and Curaçao. The aid will arrive from that Caribbean island to the state of Falcón, in northwestern Venezuela, in a flotilla of boats.
Toledo said he was moved by the “tsunami of humanitarian aid” that the international community and the United States have organized.
The distribution plan within Venezuela includes a commission from the National Assembly, several churches, NGOs and a group of volunteers who would offer means of transportation to move aid throughout the country, Toledo said. The Assembly commission has already conducted a preliminary study on which drugs are most needed and which hospitals should receive humanitarian assistance first. Organizers plan to use the networks of soup kitchens run by churches for the distribution of food.
According to USAID, the money allocated to support countries that have taken in Venezuelan refugees has been used to help pay for soup kitchens, the vaccination of 300 Venezuelans every day, medical treatment, food and other initiatives. The humanitarian aid that the U.S. is currently storing in Colombia includes fortified foods, first aid kits and personal hygiene items.
Nicolás Maduro, who also considers himself president of Venezuela, has blocked the entry of humanitarian aid claiming that it is an excuse by the United States to launch a military intervention. Venezuelan Vice President Delcy Rodríguez has said that the U.S. aid accumulating in Cúcuta and other collection centers is “contaminated and poisoned, it’s carcinogenic.”
To show that Venezuela did not need medicines, despite its severe shortage in the country, Health Minister Carlos Alvarado announced the arrival on Wednesday of more than 900 tons of medical products mainly from China and Cuba. But Guaidó and other members of the opposition have promised that aid will enter the country on Feb. 23.
On Saturday, Green didn’t discuss plans to respond if the push to get the aid into Venezuela fails.
“As president Trump likes to say, all options are on the table, but I am not aware of any concrete plans,” he told el Nuevo Herald.
Gaby Arrellano, an opposition member of the National Assembly said she also heard concerns about the aid convoys being assaulted by desperate Venezuelans.
“I can assure you,” she said, “the Venezuelan people will give a lesson in civility worth writing about both in English and Spanish.”
Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres