Sun Sentinel: Wasserman Schultz, Donna Shalala visit Venezuelan border, decry humanitarian crisis

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Washington, March 11, 2019 | comments
SUN SENTINEL
Wasserman Schultz, Donna Shalala visit Venezuelan border, decry humanitarian crisis

By Anthony Man

U.S. Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Donna Shalala, South Florida Democrats with many Venezuelan constituents, visited the Colombian-Venezuelan border over the weekend and returned home to condemn the crumbling and corrupt regime of President Nicolás Maduro.

They said they went to get a first-hand view of the humanitarian and public health crisis faced by Venezuelans. “What we saw is so much more devastating than what has previously been described,” Wasserman Schultz said Monday at a news conference at her district office in Sunrise. “It’s a devastating situation.”

It’s an important issue in South Florida, home to many Venezuelans who have fled their country.

Wasserman Schultz lives in Weston, which is home to so many people from the South American country that it’s referred to by many as “Westonzuela,” and has neighbors deeply concerned about what’s going on in their home country. She said there are more Venezuelans in her congressional district than any other.

“It is more than a failed state. It is simply a disaster,” Shalala said.

Most of the country has had no electricity since Thursday. Maduro’s government has claimed U.S. sabotage caused the blackout. Juan Guaidó, recognized by the U.S. and dozens of other countries as interim president, said it’s the result of years of corruption and lack of investment in the electrical system.

“Maduro is killing and starving his people. He is denying them healthcare. For the last four days, Venezuela has essentially been in the dark,” Wasserman Schultz said. Maduro’s attempts to blame the U.S. and other countries are meaningless, she said. “This crisis lands squarely in his own lap.”

On Saturday the congresswomen met with with Iván Duque, the president of Colombia, and local health and aid officials. On Sunday they inspected Tienditas Bridge, which crosses the Colombian-Venezuelan border where Maduro’s government has blocked humanitarian aid from entering his country. They also visited a Colombian hospitalclose to the border.

“We heard and saw the faces of hunger and sickness and real despair in the Venezuelan people,” Shalala said

At the hospital, she said they met with many new mothers who had to get there by crossing the river between the two countries at shallow points because bridges are closed, then travel through wooded areas.

One man had his eye “shot out.” Another was shot with ammunition coated with excrement, so that the wounds would be made worse because of infection, Wasserman Schultz said. Shalala, a former U.S. secretary of health and human services, said the situation is a public health crisis.

The congresswomen arrived back at Miami International Airport at about 2:30 a.m. Monday.

Wasserman Schultz met later in the morning with members of the Venezuelan community and described their trip more fully during a news conference, with Shalala participating by phone. Several leaders in South Florida’s Venezuelan community stood, with grim expressions on their faces, as they detailed for reporters what they saw over the weekendd.

Francisco Valencia, who lives “between” Miami and Venezuela, works with CodeVida, an organization that works to alleviate health issues in his home country.

“It was great for them to go to the frontera [border],” he said. “They saw for themselves the damage from Maduro.”

Valencia said Venezuelans who have had kidney transplants have been dying without medicine they need, and dialysis patients are dying because of the power failures.

Evelyn Perez-Verdia, a Colombian-American political and communications strategist who lives in Weston, joined them. “We all have to be Venezuelans, regardless of what country we are from,” she said.

Wasserman Schultz praised Colombia, which has sided with the United States in its opposition to the Maduro regime.

She was critical of nations friendly to Maduro: Russia, China and especially Cuba, which she called a “malevolent” actor. She and Shalala said Maduro is being propped up by 20,000 Cuban troops in Venezuela.

U.S. Sen Marcio Rubio, R-Fla., is widely seen as a driving force behind President Donald Trump’s increasingly anti-Maduro policy. Rubio and U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balrat, R-Miami, visited the border three weeks ago when Maduro blocked shipments of food and medicine provided by other countries at Guaido’s request.

Wasserman Schultz and Shalala said they and their Republican colleagues are on the same page when it comes to Venezuela. Wasserman Schlutz said she and Rubio — who have been at odds politcally over the years — have been in regular communication on this issue.

Democrats like Wasserman Schultz and Shalala have been similarly tough on Maduro, and they don’t want to give Republicans any advantage in Florida, which awards 29 electoral votes, during the 2020 presidential election.

Wasserman Schultz angrily rejected the notion that electoral politics is playing a role in the Democrats’ interest. “This has nothing to do with politics,” she said. “To suggest that our engagement and involvement on this has anything to do with politics rather than everything to do with alleviating a human rights crisis is outrageous."

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