Venezuela

Aid floods into Venezuela, but not enough

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By Michael Christie

CARACAS, Dec 20 (Reuters) - Venezuela has received millions of dollars and tons of food and medicine to help it cope with floods that have killed more than 10,000 people but more foreign aid is needed, a government minister said on Monday.
"It's never enough, given the magnitude of the tragedy, solidarity is never enough," Foreign Minister Jose Vicente Rangel told reporters.

Rangel thanked countries, from the affluent European Union to impoverished Honduras, that have leaped to help Venezuela cope with the aftermath of flash floods last week which wiped out whole towns on the Caribbean coast -- the South American nation's worst ever natural disaster.

Most of the victims were buried under tons of mud, rocks and tree trunks. Some were swept out to sea as mountainsides came crashing through towns, tearing everything with them.

Worst hit was the slim coastal strip of Vargas state, an industrial and tourist area roughly half the size of Rhode Island in the United States.

The death toll surpassed that of Hurricane Mitch in Central America last year, which killed 9,000 people. The international community has pledged up to $9.0 billion, in aid and debt relief, to help the region rebuild its shattered economies.

About 350,000 people lived in Vargas, but Rangel said many would have to move elsewhere in the country as their homes had been built in dangerous areas, such as gorges and near rivers.

"The state has to act. We cannot allow these people to return to these areas," he said.

PORTABLE BRIDGES NEEDED

He said Venezuela, a nation of 23 million people mired in a deep economic recession despite sitting on the world's largest oil reserves outside the Middle East, needed help to pay for new houses for 200,000 homeless people.

It also needed portable bridges and technical expertise to restore communications and infrastructure.

He declined to put a figure on aid received so far.

Nor did he want to estimate the economic damage. But he noted that Venezuela's main sea port, La Guaira, had suffered damage to 70 percent of its infrastructure.

"We need international help," Rangel said, adding that Caracas had approached the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and multilateral bodies.

John Maisto, the U.S. ambassador in Venezuela, told reporters at Simon Bolivar International airport, where hundreds of survivors were being treated and given shelter, that Washington had sent eight helicopters and about $250,000 in medicines, food, radios and plastic sheeting.

"We are helping the Venezuelans resolve this situation," he said.

Traveling with the ambassador in the disaster zone was Gen. Charles Wilhelm, head of the U.S. Southern Command, who said he would "do everything in my power" to drum up aid in Washington.

A group of Venezuelan artists launched an appeal for donations, saying they planned to organize a telethon in Venezuela, concerts in Miami, Mexico City and elsewhere, and record an album to raise funds.

"We're calling on everyone to help out," singer Ricardo Montaner said. "I don't know how much we are going to raise but whatever amount will be good, because we need a lot of money."

Montaner called on Venezuela's main television networks to dedicate their channels in January to a national fund-raiser. Rangel said the Venezuelan foreign ministry would help the artists logistically to organize the events.

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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