SAO PAULO (AP) — U.S. Vice President Mike Pence met with some Venezuelan migrants Wednesday and pledged that the U.S. will support Venezuelans who have fled their homeland until “democracy is restored” in the South American country.
While visiting a shelter in the city of Manaus in the Brazilian Amazon, Pence said he spoke to one man who told him that it took a week of work in Venezuela to make enough to feed his family for one day. Another family spoke of choosing between sending their children to school or buying food and medicine.
During the visit, some kids showed drawings they had done to Pence and his wife, Karen. She offered one child a soccer ball and gave crayons to another.
The shelter behind the Santa Catarina church houses about 120 people and opened a month ago in order to help cope with the flood of tens of thousands of Venezuelans into Brazil. Venezuela’s economy is in a deep depression and shortages of food and medicine have prodded 2 million people to leave to country.
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After visiting the shelter, Pence spoke to Venezuelan migrants and local residents who packed the church. “I’m here to bring a message on behalf of President Donald Trump and the American people. We are with you, we stand with you, and we will keep standing with you until democracy is restored in Venezuela,” he said, according to a transcript provided by the White House.
Pence also hammered away at Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, whose “failed leadership” he blamed for Venezuela’s crisis.
On Tuesday, after meeting with Brazilian President Michel Temer, Pence announced that the United States would give nearly $10 million more to support Venezuelan migrants, $1.2 million of which will go to Brazil.
But the Trump administration also wants to further isolate the socialist government of Maduro, who recently won a second term in an election condemned as illegitimate by the U.S. and other foreign governments. It has asked Brazil and other countries in the region to ramp up pressure on Maduro.
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza blasted Pence’s efforts to drum up support to isolate Venezuela, calling the U.S. efforts hypocritical at a time when the Trump administration has come under widespread criticism for separating migrant children from their parents.
“It is ironic and hypocritical that U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, whose racist government separates families and cages innocent children, intends to interfere in the affairs of our region,” Arreaza said.
In his speech at the church, Pence drew a contrast between the Venezuelans who have fled economic and political turmoil and people who have attempted to immigrate to the United States, many of whom are from Central America.
“Back in our country we face a crisis on our southern border as many seek to come into America for a better life,” Pence said. “The families that Karen and I met today who have fled from Venezuela came here to Brazil not to seek a better life; they came here to live, to survive. And the families we spoke to today told us again and again how you desire to return to Venezuela and restore freedom in your land.”
Pence defended that distinction when asked about it by reporters traveling with him, noting that the U.S. gives aid to Central American countries in the hopes of improving their economies and security there. He also said there were opportunities for people to immigrate legally to the U.S.
“So I think there is a clear distinction between people in Central America who make an often dangerous journey attempting to enter our country and the people who are literally fleeing from Venezuela to survive,” he said.
Before leaving Brazil, Pence took a helicopter tour over the Rio Negro and the Port of Manaus. He then flew to Ecuador, where he was expected to continue to push for Maduro’s isolation.
Democrats in the U.S. Senate also urged the vice president to press Ecuador’s government over its continued asylum for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Ten Democratic senators said in a letter to Pence that they were extremely concerned over Ecuador’s protection of Assange, who has lived in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London since 2012.
“It is imperative that you raise U.S. concerns with President (Lenin) Moreno,” the letter said. “WikiLeaks continues its efforts to undermine democratic processes globally.”
Associated Press writers Scott Smith in Caracas, Venezuela, and Joshua Goodman in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.