Two weeks after violent clashes on the border between Venezuela and Colombia left more than 400 people wounded, the U.S. government and its Colombian counterpart made a public gesture Thursday to indicate ongoing support for efforts led by Venezuela's interim president Juan Guaidó to bring humanitarian aid into the troubled South American country. The timeline for the aid delivery is still not clear.
In a mission charged with symbolism, seven pallets of medical supplies were transported to Cúcuta, Colombia, on March 7. It was the seventh U.S. military flight since Feb. 4, when the U.S.-backed Guaidó government started prepositioning relief supplies along the Venezuelan border. The donations were escorted by the first senior U.S. government delegation to visit the border since violent clashes broke out Feb. 23 between supporters of Nicolas Maduro and the team of volunteers trying to get trucks with humanitarian aid into the country.
"This is a clear message for Venezuela and the world: the humanitarian aid continues. The U.S. commitment continues. The Colombian commitment continues," said Venezuelan Congressman José Manuel Olivares as the pallets with boxes were being unloaded from the plane to be taken to a warehouse in Tienditas, steps away from a bridge that communicates Venezuela and Colombia.
When asked about a timeline for the delivery of aid, Olivares said he didn't want to "make the same mistake of revealing what we are going to do [to get it into the country]."
"Aid is going in. Aid has already gone in. I understand this is the question everybody wants us to answer," he said. "It'll correspond to our president, Juan Guaidó, to answer this and, as he already did, to show our country the solution."
Bonnie Glick, deputy administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) was also reluctant to talk about a timeline for the delivery of aid. "When it comes to contingency planning, our contingency is that the borders will be open and the humanitarian assistance will be allowed to enter Venezuela," she said.
Glick traveled to Cúcuta with Steve Olive, USAID's acting assistant administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean to meet with Olivares and Colombian Director of Borders Victor Bautista.
Bautista said he spoke on behalf of Colombian President Ivan Duque in saying that Colombia will still be providing aid to more than 1.2 million Venezuelan refugees, currently dispersed in 16 cities across the country. But the Colombian government knows the solution is "structural," he said. "We are working on the solution so people don't have to leave their homes in the first place."
According to Bautista, the Colombian government will continue to "act as guarantors of everything that you'll see in the warehouse [of Tienditas]" and protect the international aid until it can be distributed in Venezuela.
The two buildings that constitute the Tienditas warehouse are currently housing more than 600 tons of humanitarian aid, in the form of non-perishable food or medical supplies, according to Olivares. The U.S. alone has donated about 365 metrics tons of assistance, worth around $195 million, said Glick. Chile, Honduras, Panamá and Puerto Rico, as well as host country Colombia, have donated the rest of the supplies.
The Hercules C130 from the U.S. Air Force landed at the Camilo Daza International Airport in Cúcuta at 1:25 p.m., after a flight that started at the Homestead Air Force Base in South Florida.
Captain Brad Breedlove, along with two crew members and two mechanics, flew in from Abilene, Tx., to lead the mission. Three more security personnel flew in from the MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fl.
This was Breedlove's first humanitarian mission, after more than six years of experience piloting C-130s in war zones like Afghanistan. "My crew and I, my whole team we are happy to be here. This is one of the most rewarding things we get to do," he said.
The plane was fueled and on the runway by 7 a.m. As part of the planning, Breedlove said he spent close to two days studying the route and weather. "This area is particularly challenging because the mountainous terrain makes it difficult to fly when the clouds are low," he said about Cúcuta.
Loading a Hercules C-130 is a delicate mission of precision. It requires a forklift but also a crew member that, through a series of hand signals, tells when to move, push or shove the payload until it can enter the plane through a system similar to a conveyor belt. Positioning the seven pallets of medical supplies, that included surgical masks, gowns, cleaning supplies and latex gloves, took the crew approximately 35 minutes. The cargo was light, only 5.6 tons in a plane for capacity for up to 42,000 tons, but voluminous; it occupied about three-quarters of the 41 feet in length of the plane.
The Hercules is used mostly as a transport vehicle so there's no differentiated area for passengers and cargo. The flying crew goes into the cockpit, where there are seats for up to four people. Other travelers sit on long fabric benches, among the cargo.
Touring the Tienditas warehouse. Country donations are marked with flags pic.twitter.com/0uRIylnJ9W
— Teresa Frontado (@tfrontado) March 7, 2019
Once in Colombia, the aid was loaded into three white eight-wheelers and taken on a 15 minutes drive to the Tienditas warehouse, where it's classified and stored by a group of volunteers. The aid is kept in pallets and organized by categories. All food is in one building and medical supplies in another.
Nearly 14 metric tons of medical supplies - including wheelchairs, crutches, bandages, examination gloves, face masks and cleaning supplies for proper infection protocol and control in hospitals - have been delivered so far by the U.S. Department of Defense. Military missions have also delivered 18 metric tons of highly nutritious products for malnourished children (enough to treat 3,400 children); 4,995 hygiene kits including soap, toothpaste and toothbrushes (enough for 25,000 people), two water treatment units, two water storage containers, 3,200 buckets with lids and built-in taps to store water and 30 metric tons of rice.
USAID has also sent four emergency medical kits with enough supplies to help a total of 40,000 people for 90 days; 20 metric tons of high energy biscuit that can be used as meal replacements for 10,000 kids for a month and 35 metric tons of other ready to use supplementary foods, enough for 6,700 children.
The U.S. government has also donated funds to purchase enough local products to fill 6,050 food kits and 2,000 hygiene kits. You can see what these kits contain below.