U.S. Southern Command announced Tuesday that the Norfolk, Virginia-based Navy hospital ship Comfort will deploy next month to the Caribbean region and Central and South America to provide humanitarian assistance, including assisting refugees affected by the political crisis in Venezuela.
The announcement came as the Pentagon and other South American countries increased calls for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to step down. On Tuesday, Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and Colombian Vice President Marta Lucia Ramirez issued a joint statement following a meeting at the Pentagon, calling for a peaceful transition of power to opposition leader Juan Guaido.
"Today, our nations confirmed our mutual commitment to the freedom-loving people of Venezuela. ... Juan Guaido [is] the legitimate leader of Venezuela who is officially recognized by 54 countries around the world," they said. "Together, we stand committed to resolving the humanitarian crisis in our hemisphere, in stark contrast with malign foreign attempts to interfere militarily."
U.S. President Donald Trump told reporters Friday that his administration is interested in getting humanitarian aid to those affected by the economic and political upheaval over the Venezuelan presidency.
Trump downplayed any military response after spending time on the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He said he "feels the same way" as Putin, who Trump said "is not looking at all to get involved in Venezuela other than he'd like to see something positive happen for Venezuela."
The 1,000-bed Comfort will be gone for five months, making visits to several yet-to-be-named countries in "support of regional partners and in response to the regional impacts of the Venezuela political and economic crisis," SOUTHCOM said in a news release.
The ship's contingent of U.S. military medical personnel will provide medical assistance based on the needs and requests of host countries and health ministries, the release notes.
"The USNS Comfort represents our enduring promise to our partners in the Western Hemisphere -- our shared neighborhood," said Navy Adm. Craig Faller, SOUTHCOM commander. "U.S. Southern Command is committed to the region in support of our Caribbean and Latin American partners, as well as displaced Venezuelans who continue to flee the brutal oppression of the former Maduro regime."
Shanahan met last week with senior Trump administration officials, including Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton to discuss military options in Venezuela.
In a statement on Twitter on Friday, Bolton said the U.S. will not tolerate foreign military interference in the Western Hemisphere. "President Trump has made it clear there will be costs for those who further Maduro's usurpation and repression," he wrote.
For now, however, the response is limited to humanitarian and medical aid. The deployment will be the Comfort's seventh in the region since 2007 and the second in the last six months.
Some members of Congress have expressed support for military intervention in Venezuela. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, met this week with Fabiana Rosales de Guaido, wife of Juan Guaido, and referred to her as the first lady of Venezuela.
On Twitter, Graham called for a military response in the region.
"Cuba, Russia send troops to prop Maduro up in Venezuela … while we talk/sanction. Where is our aircraft carrier?" he wrote.
Hoping to assert congressional oversight of any response, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, introduced a bill Monday that would limit the president's ability to use humanitarian crises to circumvent the War Powers Act.
Lee's bill, the Military Humanitarian Operations Act, would require the president to obtain congressional authorization before deploying U.S. troops for a humanitarian operation. Military rescue missions of U.S. citizens and responses to natural disasters would be exempt.
"The founders placed the power to declare war squarely on the legislative branch so that it would reside in the body most accountable to the people," Lee said.