Venezuela government wants to use funds frozen in the U.S. to pay for vaccines


FILE PHOTO: People walk on a busy commercial street amid a spike in infections of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) that has led the government to extend lockdown measures, in Caracas, Venezuela April 6, 2021. REUTERS/Leonardo Fernandez Viloria/File Photo

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's government wants funds frozen in the United States to be put toward paying for coronavirus vaccines and will keep working with the opposition to negotiate this payment, the head of the government-controlled legislature said on Tuesday.

Allies of opposition leader Juan Guaido have for months been in talks with state officials to buy vaccines through the COVAX program using funds frozen by the U.S. Treasury as part of sanctions against the government of President Nicolas Maduro.

Maduro over the weekend said his government had paid some $64 million to the GAVI Vaccine Alliance, spurring doubts as to whether the government would pull the plug on talks to use the frozen funds for the inoculation campaign.

Jorge Rodriguez, head of the National Assembly dominated by the ruling Socialist Party, said talks regarding the "kidnapped" funds would continue.

"If more of the kidnapped resources are used, it would be to buy the vaccines that are needed via the (Pan American Health Organization) and the (World Health Organization)," Rodriguez said in a news conference.

In 2019, Washington froze $342 million held by the Venezuelan central bank in the United States, as part of a sanctions program that sought to remove Maduro from power.

The funds were put under the control of opposition leader Guaido and the interim government he created, but moving them requires a license from the U.S. Treasury Department Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).

A working group created last year to ensure Venezuela's access to COVAX, which includes health ministry officials as well as advisers to Guaido, will continue seeking to use the OFAC funds for vaccines, Rodriguez said.

His comments were the first time a government official has publicly acknowledged the discussions with the Guaido allies, who he described as "kidnappers."

Business group Fedecamaras last month presented a plan to acquire vaccines for private-sector workers and their families and which was delivered to Rodriguez, who is an influential figure in Maduro's government.

Rodriguez said the plan presented by Fedecamaras "is not dead."

Venezuela has received 750,000 doses of vaccines supplied by allied countries such as Russia and China, which authorities say have been given to health personnel.

Graphic-COVID-19 vaccination tracker: https://graphics.reuters.com/world-coronavirus-tracker-and-maps/vaccination-rollout-and-access/

It has reported 175,812 coronavirus cases 1,785 deaths, though medical experts say the figure is likely higher due to limited testing.

(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth and Vivian Sequera in Caracas; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

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