Venezuela power struggle impedes delivery of COVID vaccine

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Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

FILE - In this Sept. 19, 2020 file photo, a doctor takes a nasal swab sample to test for COVID-19 at the Cocodrilos Sports Park in Caracas, Venezuela. PAHO, the regional office for the World Health Organization in the Americas, said the week of Jan. 22 2021 that only 3,000, or about 1%, of the 340,000 COVID antigen testing kits sent to the country have been used. (AP Photo/Matias Delacroix, File)

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

The socialist government of Nicolás Maduro and the U.S.-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 U.S. sanctions, has proposed selling a small part of the $2 billion Venezuela's central bank has sitting frozen in the U.K. Lawyers for Venezuela's central bank warn a “humanitarian disaster, and a potentially large loss of life" could result if the U.K. 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 funds, which includes billions in gold ingots stored at the Bank of England, 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 U.S. 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 $18 million down payment on vaccines to the U.N. 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 neighbors, who have absorbed more than 5 million Venezuelan migrants in recent years.