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'We Don't Have Time': Venezuelan Exiles Discuss Worsening Humanitarian Crisis In Venezuela

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Sam Turken
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WLRN
Lieutenant Governor Jeanette Nuñez and Florida First Lady Casey DeSantis met with Venezuelan exiles, Feb. 15, 2019."

Venezuelan exiles in South Florida say more aid is needed in Venezuela to alleviate the country’s devastating humanitarian crisis that has left millions starving. 

As Venezuela’s opposition and the U.S. continue to challenge embattled president Nicolás Maduro, basic food and medical supplies remain out of reach due to hyperinflation. Diseases are also becoming untreatable. 

During a roundtable discussion on Friday at Florida International University with Lieutenant Governor Jeanette Nuñez and Florida First Lady Casey DeSantis, exiles said more must be done to alleviate the suffering. 

“Every minute that passes, some Venezuelans are dying,” said Ernesto Ackerman, vice president of the group Independent Venezuelan American Citizens. “We don’t have time. People don’t have time.” 

The humanitarian crisis has worsened amid an escalating standoff between Maduro and the U.S. opposition leader Juan Guaidó. 

The U.S. and more than a dozen other countries have recognized Guaidó as Venezuela’s president, and the Trump administration has worked with him to send humanitarian aid to the country. The U.S. has been storing food and medicine in the Columbian border city of Cúcuta. 

Maduro has so far blocked all U.S. shipments and accused the Trump administration of orchestrating a coup. He's said the aid shipments are being used to justify a military intervention. U.S. officials indeed have said the aid shipments are aimed at persuading the Venezuelan military to break with Maduro and allow the supplies into the country. 

Members of the opposition say they are now considering options to physically force assistance into the country. A showdown is expected on Feb. 23 when the U.S. and Guaidó lead an effort to move aid across the border. It remains unclear how the U.S. will do so. For more than a week, experts and officials have been considering smuggling in the aid at various points along the porous border. 

The shortages of food and medical supplies have led millions to flee Venezuela. Venezuelans now make up the largest group, by nationality, of people seeking asylum in the U.S.

The country once had one of the best healthcare systems in Latin America. Now, diseases like measles and malaria have exploded and are spreading across the region. Other treatable illnesses like HIV and diabetes have become increasingly deadly, said Rafael Gottenger, Vice President of the Venezuelan American Medical Association.

“We’re seeing things that we’ve never seen on this side of the hemisphere in history,” Gottenger said.

Nuñez noted that Florida is trying to help Venezuelans who have moved to the state and have family in Venezuela. She said the Department of Economic Opportunity has given out grants to Venezuelan exiles to help them expand their businesses. A hope, she said, is for them to be able send more money back to relatives in Venezuela.

“The state of Florida stands poised and ready to assist in any way we can,” she said. “For those Venezuelans that are here, they are able to avail themselves of opportunities that the state has to be able to assist them as they rebuild their lives.”

In addition to humanitarian aid, exiles said the humanitarian crisis can only improve with Maduro’s ousting. Ackerman said he’s hopeful that increased pressure on Maduro from Guaidó and the U.S. will finally force him out. His time is up, he said.

“Maduro is completely surrounded,” he added. “In 20 years, we’ve never had this support from the international community.”