CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido said on Wednesday that Venezuelan funds controlled by the U.S. Treasury Department could be used to pay for coronavirus vaccines but that President Nicolas Maduro’s government is refusing to cooperate.
The government has not accepted an implementation plan laid out by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) that would enable Venezuela to join the COVAX program, and has not fulfilled a prior deal regarding distribution of COVID-19 tests.
“The (problem) is not the funds, that’s the dictatorship’s propaganda to try to excuse itself and point fingers and confuse the whole world,” Guaido told a press conference.
“If we are willing, and the regime is not, the funds cannot be transferred.”
Venezuela’s information ministry and the U.S. Treasury did not immediately reply to requests for comment.
Ciro Ugarte, PAHO’s director of health emergencies, told another press conference on Wednesday that Maduro had “announced his interest in obtaining access to vaccines via the COVAX mechanism, as well as from other sources, and the Guaido group has also expressed that intention”.
The United States in 2019 recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate president and created a sanctions package against the Maduro government that included the seizure of nearly $350 million held in U.S. accounts.
Part of those funds were used last year to obtain test kits and personal protective equipment for medical workers, following an agreement between Venezuelan officials and opposition leaders, Guaido said.
Venezuela needs to pay more than $100 million to get access to vaccines through the global COVAX program that allocates access to shots for poorer countries, according to estimates by diplomats familiar with the situation.
Maduro’s allies in recent weeks have said Venezuela cannot pay due to sanctions.
PAHO said last month Venezuela had used only 1% of the coronavirus tests it had received, and Venezuela’s opposition said Maduro had not honored deals to distribute equipment and tests.
Maduro has said the South American country will receive 10 million doses of the Sputnik V vaccine from ally Russia.
A PAHO official said on Tuesday that between 1.4 million and 2.4 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine had been reserved for Venezuela and could arrive by the end of February, but that Caracas would have to pay for them by Feb. 9.
PAHO had previously said that Venezuela would not be able to participate in the COVAX facility due to a lack of timely payments by the government.
Reporting by Brian Ellsworth in Caracas; Writing by Luc Cohen; Editing by Marguerita Choy and Mark Heinrich