Dr. Marc Siegel: Time to end the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela -- Maduro needs to be removed from power

President Trump announced this week that he is officially recognizing the president of the Venezuelan National Assembly, Juan Guaido, as the interim president of Venezuela. This move is an extremely important shift in U.S. policy that could lead to many lives saved. Canada, Brazil and other countries have joined the U.S. The ruling president, Nicolas Maduro, quickly responded by severing all diplomatic ties with the U.S., and gave U.S. staff 72 hours to leave the country.

As Isaias Medina III – international lawyer, humanitarian activist, former Venezuelan diplomat to the United Nations, and one of the first to quit in disgust over Maduro’s policies – said to me this week, "Maduro's induced humanitarian crisis, through weaponization of starvation and medical scarcity to remain in power, takes the life of hundreds of victims on a daily basis and has caused the forced displacement of more than 3 million people. In Venezuela, if you don't have a 21st-century socialist apartheid card, you are walking down death row."

When Hugo Chavez was elected president of Venezuela in 1998 he promised free health care for all. But this promise quickly deteriorated into a health care crisis, and under Nicolas Maduro, who has been president since 2013, the health care system has collapsed into a full-scale humanitarian crisis.

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According to the Venezuelan Society of Pediatrics and Childcare, 80 percent of children under 5 years of age are in some state of malnutrition. The Caritas international relief organization reported a neonatal death toll in 2016 of 11,400 children. The Pharmaceutical Federation of Venezuela has reported a medication shortage of 85 percent and according to the Venezuelan Medical Federation, 328,000 Venezuelans die every year because of lack of medicines.

Malaria, TB and HIV are resurging because of the poor conditions and lack of treatments. The former minister of health, Antonia Caporale, publicly reported more than 240,000 cases of Malaria in 2016 and a tripling of TB cases to 7,278 in 2015 – numbers that helped lead to her immediate removal from office.

Caritas has concluded that 82 percent of the population is impoverished, with 15 million in extreme poverty. Out of 23 million Venezuelans, 4.5 million are eating one meal per day or less, and more than 3 million eat from the garbage.

Heart attacks are the leading cause of death in Venezuela with 30,899 people dying of heart disease in 2013 and 11,164 of strokes, according to information obtained by Isaias Medina. The death rate for heart disease is still close to 15 percent, as it was in 1980 before there were acute interventions like angioplasty and stents or the latest medications.

On top of all the shortages, the horrid conditions and the poverty, medical personnel are leaving. 13,000 doctors have fled Venezuela over the past four years alone.

What should be done? With Maduro refusing humanitarian aid from other countries while at the same time strangling his own people, it is clear that he must be removed from power. As a physician, I am generally a pacifist. But in this case, observing the status quo could lead to millions more deaths. International military intervention may be necessary to save lives.

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President Trump has said, “I will continue to use the full weight of United States economic and diplomatic power to press for the restoration of Venezuelan democracy. We continue to hold the illegitimate Maduro regime directly responsible for any threats it may pose to the safety of the Venezuelan people.”

The president’s timely statements should receive bipartisan support at home and around the world. The time for the world to intervene and remove Nicolas Maduro from power – for the sake of the safety of the Venezuelan people – is now.

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