The U.S. military will begin delivering relief supplies to the Colombian border near Venezuela, U.S. officials said Friday, as the Trump administration increases its efforts to assist the opposition.
The relief includes food, hygiene kits and medical supplies, said a Pentagon spokesman, Army Lt. Col. Jamie Davis.
The State Department said it will work with the Defense Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to deliver the aid to the border city of Cucuta, Colombia, “for distribution within Venezuela.” A flight will depart from Miami on Saturday.
“This humanitarian mission underscores the United States’ firm commitment and readiness to respond to the man-made political, economic, and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela,” the State Department said in a statement. “This humanitarian assistance must be allowed to enter Venezuela to reach people in need.”
A U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the mission does not indicate that additional American troops will be deploying to Colombia. More than 200 tons of supplies are expected to be delivered.
The planned flight was first reported by the Associated Press, citing an email from a congressional aide. It isn’t yet clear how the supplies will be disbursed, or where.
The United States has continued to press Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to step down amid an economic and political crisis in which the National Assembly declared his 2018 reelection invalid in January and declared the assembly’s president, Juan Guaidó, interim president.
Davis said the assistance is part of an effort by the U.S. government “to respond to the humanitarian impacts of this political and economic crisis.” The aid was requested by Guaidó, he said.
USAID said in a tweet Friday that the hygiene kits include toilet paper, feminine products, soap, razors, toothpaste, laundry detergent and other items that have become scarce and prohibitively expensive in Venezuela.
Venezuelans are bracing for a showdown over foreign aid on Feb. 23, when the opposition will seek to bring in millions of dollars worth of supplies donated by the United States and other countries from staging areas in Colombia, Curacao and Brazil. Maduro, however, has called the mission a Trojan horse invasion by the United States and ordered the military to prevent any aid from getting in.
Already, there were signs of rising tensions. On Friday, a special police unit briefly detained two senior officials from the Mavid Foundation, a Venezuelan AIDS charity. In a statement, the opposition official heading the humanitarian aid drive, Miguel Pizarro, condemned the arrests and said government officials had also seized medicines and baby formula donated by the New York-based charity Aid for AIDS.
Reached by phone, Jesús Aguais, executive director of Aid for AIDS, said he believed the arrest had been politically motivated. Maduro has sought to vilify foreign donors by saying Venezuelans “are not beggars.”
Members of the Mavid Foundation had been open critics of the government, Aguais said. He expressed outrage over the arrest and particularly the seizure of formula, which had been destined for distribution to mothers, who, because they have HIV or for other reasons, are unable to breast-feed their infants.
“So what, now they’re killing babies?” Aguais said. “These women, these babies, depend on this formula for their infants to survive.”
Earlier Friday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during a news conference in Iceland that Maduro’s recent invitation to Elliott Abrams, the State Department’s special envoy for the country, shows that he is desperate.
Pompeo repeated a frequent criticism that Venezuelan’s humanitarian crisis is Maduro’s fault and said the United States will continue to try to get food and other aid to Venezuela. Maduro’s government has blocked the delivery aid.
“This man, Maduro, has created a humanitarian crisis that is unequaled, in a nation where there was no hard conflict,” Pompeo said. “And we as citizens, this weekend will continue to deliver massive humanitarian assistance.”
Last month, national security adviser John Bolton drew attention for carrying a notepad with the phrase “5,000 troops to Colombia” on it during a briefing about Venezuela, but it would be complicated for the Trump administration to complete such a plan. Congressionally mandated U.S. troop caps in the country state that no more than 800 service members and 600 contractors can be in Colombia at a time.
Anthony Faiola in Caracas and Carol Morello in Reykjavik contributed to this report.