Venezuelan Government, Opposition In Talks

The talks come amid protests in front of the Ombudsman's building demanding better wages and medicines to treat patients affected by the pandemic caused by COVID-19, in Caracas on February 9, 2021. Here a nurse from a state hospital shows a one dollar bill, which according to him, is the equivalent of two weeks' salary for his work. According to health workers, the salary they currently receive for a month's work is equivalent to two dollars. (Photo by YURI CORTEZ/AFP via Getty Images)

CARACAS, Venezuela, Fri. Feb 12, 2021 (Reuters) – Venezuelan government officials and opposition leaders have met to discuss a deal to buy coronavirus vaccines through the COVAX program using cash frozen in the United States by economic sanctions, two sources familiar with the matter said on Thursday.

Opposition leader Juan Guaido last week said that Venezuelan funds controlled by the U.S. Treasury Department could be used to pay for vaccines. The cash-strapped government of President Nicolas Maduro has signed up for COVAX, co-led by the World Health Organization to provide vaccines globally, but has not made the associated payments.

The meeting marks a step forward in what will likely be a long process requiring that U.S. authorities approve the use of the funds, as well as the completion of a vaccination roll-out plan for crisis-stricken Venezuela.

The information ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

The United States in 2019 froze $342 million held by Venezuela’s central bank in the United States as part of a sanctions program that was meant to force Maduro from power.

Moving the funds usually requires applying for license from the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Asset Control.

The Pan American Health Organization’s Chief of Mission in Venezuela, Paolo Balladelli, in a tweet said there had been advances in obtaining vaccines for Venezuela, and that Unicef and the World Health Organization would be involved.

“Today, with the will of the political, technical and academic actors of Venezuela, the National Roundtable for Access to the COVAX Strategy has advanced to guarantee access to vaccines against COVID-19,” he wrote.

The Pan American Health Organization did not respond to a request for comment seeking confirmation that his tweet referred to a meeting between the government and Guaido representatives.

One of the participants in the meeting was Julio Castro, a doctor and medical advisor to Guaido, said sources, who asked not to be identified.

Castro did not respond to messages seeking comment, but on Twitter also suggested there had been a meeting.

“Today the National Table for Access to the COVAX Strategy was established,” he wrote. “We welcome the beginning of the construction of a joint strategy among all.”

Balladelli last week said that between 1.4 million and 2.4 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine had been reserved for Venezuela. At $10 per dose, those vaccines would cost between $140 million and $240 million.

(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth and Vivian Sequera; editing by Grant McCool)