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  • One of the Venezuelan planes that transported trained volunteers, relief and logistical supplies to Barbuda and Dominica, through Antigua and Saint Lucia.

    One of the Venezuelan planes that transported trained volunteers, relief and logistical supplies to Barbuda and Dominica, through Antigua and Saint Lucia. | Photo: teleSUR

Published 28 September 2017
In this two-part report, relief flights from Airborne Bolivarian Solidarity Bridge are detailed and put into context.

A quiet but quite effective and continuous expression of pure Caribbean friendship and solidarity is underway, unraveling in different parts along the 1,000-mile island archipelago stretching from the Northern Antilles to the Florida Keys.

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Airborne Bolivarian Solidarity Bridge is delivering urgent help to Dominica, Antigua & Barbuda and Mexico City following three successive hurricanes and two deadly earthquakes, all unprecedented in their velocity and volume of damage.

It hasn’t made the headlines in the mainstream international or regional press, but the increasing number of Caribbean people directly benefiting from it are singing high praise about Venezuela’s quick response to appeals for relief assistance to people most in need in the most affected neighboring small islands of Barbuda and Dominica.

It all started earlier in September, the day after Hurricane Irma hit the smaller islands of the upper Caribbean chain, including: the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, the Dutch and French Antilles, Turks and Caicos Islands, Anguilla, Antigua & Barbuda, the Bahamas, Barbados, Cuba, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Saint Lucia, Saint Kitts and Nevis.

Antigua’s Prime Minister Gaston Browne had made a direct telephone call to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas – and in less than a day, Venezuelan army aircraft were on standby for dispatch to Antigua with volunteer personnel and emergency supplies for Barbuda, the tiny ward island where 95 percent of buildings and homes lost their roofs, leaving 85 percent of the 1,400 inhabitants homeless.

The Bolivarian humanitarian air bridge to Barbuda also included stops in other Eastern Caribbean islands like Saint Lucia, to collect additional supplies.

The Dominica tragedy

Hurricane Maria hit Dominica just a week after Irma, on the night of Monday, Sept. 18, 2017.

By 1:13 a.m. on Sept. 19 – one hour to what ought to have been another normal sunny tropical Caribbean day – Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit issued an urgent Facebook statement from his roofless home in Roseau, fearing out loud that daylight would reveal unwelcome news of deaths and destruction.

His fears were indeed realized. The hazy morning sunshine rose to reveal unimaginable destruction, as far as the eye could see.

Hardly a house had a roof, trees were without leaves, felled trunks and broken branches lined and blocked streets, covering vehicles and splitting wooden housing structures, as if the island’s lush forest had overnight drifted downstream into towns, villages and communities.

Police stations and hospitals were swept away and there was no clean water or electricity, even though online phone services had been somewhat restored.

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At first count 15 lives were lost, including a 10-­year-old pulled from under the rubble. But the number of dead was expected – almost guaranteed – to increase, officially reaching 27 dead and 27 confirmed missing by Sept. 25.

There are still many persons unaccounted for that are being sought by anxious relatives.

Meanwhile, the multinational security details on the island are reporting that four escaped prisoners have been recovered and scores have been arrested for various offenses, from looting and robbery to breaking the 12-hour curfew, which has now been extended.

Fertile ground

Skerrit’s desperate appeal for urgent help fell on fertile ground in Venezuela, where President Maduro, enlisting the experience from the Antigua & Barbuda operation, activated military aircraft and emergency personnel to transport supplies and services to assist Dominica.

At a special army hangar near Caracas, the Bolivarian Armed Forces and scores of trained rescue specialists remained on standby with an initial supply of 10 tons of perishable foods and water, while a helicopter made an aerial assessment of the landing possibilities on the battered and mountainous island.

By Wednesday morning, after the official regional all-clear was given for flying, two Bolivarian air force aircraft and one helicopter, carrying 40 trained rescue specialists and medics and supplies, flew to neighboring Saint Lucia, which became the base of operations for an effective airborne relief and rescue operation.

The solidarity air bridge is between Hewanorra International Airport and a selected playing field-turned-helicopter-landing-strip in Dominica.

Aboard the first humanitarian flight from Venezuela was Dominican Senator Jahisiah Benoit, who’d been stranded in Caracas, along with several other Caribbean delegates following a well-attended weekend "Global Dialogue on Peace, Solidarity and Bolivarian Democracy" that drew over 250 delegates from 60 countries.

The young senator, who is also a leader of the island’s National Youth Council, helped the planners better understand the logistical challenges posed by the rugged terrain of the hilly "Nature Isle" of 365 rivers.

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