Wed | Mar 3, 2021

Power struggle impedes delivery of COVID vaccine

Published:Saturday | January 23, 2021 | 12:09 AM
A doctor takes a nasal swab sample to test for COVID-19 at the Cocodrilos Sports Park in Caracas, Venezuela.
A doctor takes a nasal swab sample to test for COVID-19 at the Cocodrilos Sports Park in Caracas, Venezuela.


Venezuela’s political conflict has claimed another casualty: relief from the coronavirus pandemic.

The socialist government of Nicolás Maduro and the US-backed opposition are accusing each other of playing politics with proposals to finance United Nations-supplied vaccines – so far blocking any option from going ahead.

The cash-strapped government, shut out from western banks by US sanctions, has proposed selling some of the US$2 billion in Venezuelan-owned gold ingots sitting frozen in the vaults of the Bank of England. Lawyers for Venezuela’s central bank warn a “humanitarian disaster, and a potentially large loss of life” could result if the UK funds aren’t freed up.

But the opposition led by Juan Guaidó opposes that plan – a stance that scuppers any movement until Britain’s Supreme Court decides the thorny question of who is Venezuela’s legitimate president, with oversight of its assets.

The opposition says Maduro can’t be trusted to fairly distribute the vaccine and contends the government’s real aim is to create a precedent allowing it to access the bullion that has been frozen by British courts – equal to a third of the nation’s foreign currency reserves.

The opposition has instead proposed tapping similarly embargoed funds it has access to in the US and deploying monitors to make sure distribution of the vaccine isn’t used as a cover for political patronage – a potential victory for Guaidó’s faction since Maduro has effectively shut it out of power within Venezuela’s borders.

The acrimonious posturing has already led Venezuela to miss a December deadline to make an US$18 million down payment on vaccines to the UN. The high-stakes tug of war means Venezuelans are likely to continue suffering the effects of the virus even as vaccine rollouts begin elsewhere in Latin America, with the only possible help coming from the Sputnik V vaccine provided by Maduro’s staunch ally Russia.

It also underscores the new Biden administration’s challenges in bridging the divisions that have exacerbated a humanitarian crisis overwhelming the country’s neighbours, who have absorbed more than five million Venezuelan migrants in recent years.

“It’s not enough to allocate blame,” said Francisco Rodriguez, a Venezuelan economist behind Oil for Venezuela, a US-based group advocating for greater assistance to the most vulnerable. “To actually resolve the problems, both sides need to show a willingness to cooperate so that the Venezuelan people are not collateral damage in this political conflict.”

The vaccine fight came to light as part of a courtroom battle between Maduro and Guaidó over control of the gold at the Bank of England. The UK’s Supreme Court in December agreed to hear the case, which hinges on who Britain recognises as the Venezuela’s legitimate leader: the one Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government says it backs – Guaidó – or Maduro, with whom it maintains tense diplomatic ties.

In September, Maduro’s health minister agreed to purchase 11 million doses of vaccines in the first round of the UN-backed programme, known as COVAX, which seeks to buy and distribute vaccines to more than 100 countries. Under the terms, it was required to make a down payment of over US$18 million by December 15 and provide financial guarantees for another US$101 million.

“Regrettably, due to the impact of the US government sanctions, it has not been possible for Venezuela to meet either of those obligations,” lawyers for Maduro’s central bank, London-based Zaiwalla & Co, said in a December 23 letter sent to counsel for Guaidó in which they proposed the gold be used to pay for the vaccines.

Six days later, Guaidó’s attorneys rejected the plan, arguing that other payment mechanisms exist, including funds that were seized by the Trump administration and that have already been used to provide cash bonuses for underpaid health workers on the frontlines of the raging medical crisis.