WASHINGTON — The Trump administration on Tuesday announced an additional $18.5 million in humanitarian assistance to Colombia for response to the Venezuelan crisis, shortly after it called for the first time for regime change in Caracas.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan announced the additional pledge at the Council of the Americas’ annual Conference on the Americas at the State Department in Washington, D.C.
“The suffering of the Venezuelan people is extraordinary,” Sullivan said. “It’s well past time for [Venezuelan President] Nicolas Maduro to open Venezuela to international aid. Meanwhile, the United States will continue to use all diplomatic and economic means to support the Venezuelan people’s effort to restore democracy and return to prosperity.”
The $18.5 million in bilateral aid to Colombia is on top of the more than $21 million the U.S. has already pledged to governments and organizations in the region dealing with the fallout of Venezuela’s political and economic crisis. The new pledge, if approved by Congress, will fund mobile health units to help underserved populations, a school feeding program, and a registry system to help the Colombian government better track needs and access to services. International estimates of refugees vary, but an average of 5,000 people are believed to be crossing the border every day.
“As long as Maduro keeps the stores empty, the streets dangerous, and the government unaccountable, Venezuelans will not return home, and instability in the region will grow.”— U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley
Just moments before Sullivan announced the new funds for Colombia, the Trump administration for the first time said publicly that Maduro should leave office.
“The systematic oppression of the Venezuelan people has become an active threat to the entire region. For the safety and security of all peoples in the Latin America, it is time for Maduro to go,” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said during remarks at the conference.
The U.S. generally carefully calculates its public statements concerning Venezuela, as the government in Caracas regularly seizes on comments by U.S. officials as evidence that political unrest inside the country is being fomented by Washington. Maduro is due to hold elections May 20, which Haley called “a sham” and “rigged.”
In a speech at the Organization of American States, Vice President Mike Pence on Monday called on the Venezuelan government to postpone the election until independent monitors are allowed to ensure it is free and fair.
The OAS has been largely ineffective in dealing with the Venezuelan crisis, which has seen refugee flows stretch resources in multiple countries in the region. Despite holding numerous meetings regarding Venezuela, the OAS has so far failed to develop a concrete response plan, as individual governments struggle to provide services to Venezuelans fleeing across their borders.
“Trying to get Maduro to go, I am convinced, depends on the region,” Haley said. “The region has tried to put pressure on Maduro. We saw that in what we saw with the OAS — they tried to make a difference, and that didn’t work.”
Haley said that while action depends on Latin America, the crisis demands more attention from the entire world.
“Children are dying of malnutrition. Hospitals are without medicine and supplies. Once-eradicated diseases are now reappearing. And the currency is next to worthless, with the inflation rates of up to an unbelievable 18,000 percent,” Haley said. “As long as Maduro keeps the stores empty, the streets dangerous, and the government unaccountable, Venezuelans will not return home, and instability in the region will grow.”
Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, said at the conference that current U.S. government funding levels for the crisis were not sufficient, and he would be introducing a bipartisan bill in the Senate next week to remedy what he said has been an inadequate response. The bill would expand the U.S. response and aid contribution, and add additional targeted sanctions.
“The suffering and despair of the people of Venezuela cries out for moral leadership,” Menendez said.