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LATIN AMERICA | 05-05-2020 13:35

Democrats in US warn Trump's WHO freeze will hurt Venezuelans

President Trump's decision to halt funding to the World Health Organisation will hit Venezuelans substantially, according to Democrats.

As much as US$110 million in US funding for disease prevention in Latin America as well as US support for Venezuelan migrants has been thrown into doubt as part of President Donald Trump's decision to halt funding to the World Health Organisation (WHO) over its response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Representative Eliot Engel, the Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, sent a letter Thursday to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo complaining that freezing funds for the Pan American Health Organisation threatened to worsen the plight of Venezuelans suffering at the hands of Nicolás Maduro.

"We believe it is dangerous and shortsighted of the Trump Administration to pause US funding for the life-saving work" by PAHO in Venezuela, the New York Democrat wrote in the letter, which was also signed by Representative Albio Sires, chairman of the subcommittee focused on Latin America.

PAHO said this week that the US had suspended its contributions as an extension of Trump's funding freeze for the WHO.

But two US officials cautioned that no final decision had been made. One said the next US payment isn't due until late May and an exclusion for PAHO is being discussed. Both officials insisted on anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Humanitarian assistance

The Washington-based PAHO is unique in that it is both a regional office in the Americas for the WHO but also a separately run institution that predates by almost a half century the creation of the United Nations agency.

Only about a third of its funding comes from the WHO, with the rest provided by its 35 member states, of which the US is by far its largest contributor, responsible for 60 percent of its overall budget. Currently the US owes PAHO US$110 million in assessed contributions for 2019 and 2020.

The State Department and US Agency for International Development would not comment.

Engel in his letter said he was dismayed to learn that US$12 million in US funding for PAHO to conduct diagnostics and tracing for the coronavirus in Venezuela and among Venezuelan migrants in Colombia was on hold.

He said US-supported efforts inside Venezuela had saved lives and prevented the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

He said a PAHO-backed measles vaccination programme supported by US$3.4 million in USAID funding enabled nine million Venezuelan children to get shots and paved the way for a 90 percent decline in measles cases from 5,800 in 2018 to less than 600 in 2019. He cited studies indicating as many as 94 percent of Venezuelans are living in poverty and 7 million need humanitarian assistance.

PAHO also declined to comment, pointing instead to comments by Dr. Carissa Etienne, who heads the organisation, saying that Trump's freeze in funding for the WHO had been "extended" to include US funding for PAHO.

"Over the years we have enjoyed a very firm collaboration and technical support from the US government," Dr. Carissa Etienne said in remarks to journalists Tuesday. "This mutual collaboration between the US and PAHO has stood the test of many, many years and it is our hope that we can continue to work in this vein to insure that health and well being come to the majority of people in the Americas."

Ill-timed decision

Trump two weeks ago halted funding to the Geneva-based WHO, arguing that it had mimicked Chinese assurances about the coronavirus' spread, wrongly opposed travel restrictions at the start of the outbreak and was slow to declare the outbreak a global pandemic.

Many philanthropists like Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg joined European and African leaders and health experts in criticising the decision, calling it ill-timed.

PAHO is one of the few ways the US is able to channel aid to Venezuela since it doesn't recognise Maduro and has no functioning embassy in Caracas.

In the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, PAHO was also key in brokering contact between Venezuelan health officials and their counterparts in Colombia to discuss ways to stop the virus' spread among millions of poor Venezuelans who have fled the country in recent years and who are expected to overload Colombia's already overburdened health system if the pandemic worsens. Like the US, Colombia doesn't recognise Maduro.

Maduro has consistently rejected US offers of humanitarian aid, calling them an underhanded attempt to destabilise his rule. The opposition has been similarly reluctant to work with Maduro officials to distribute the aid that has trickled in from the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Roman Catholic Church and other sources, seeing it as a tool of coercion.

But over the past year, as efforts to unseat Maduro have stalled and social conditions have worsened, the opposition has quietly eased its objections to working through the socialist government in the belief that regular Venezuelans will benefit and to prepare for eventually assuming power itself one day. One opposition official called the cooperation "a necessary evil."

by Joshua Goodman, Associated Press

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