U.S. urges Paraguay to work with Taiwan amid pandemic protests

TAIPEI (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has urged Paraguay to work with its diplomatic ally Taiwan to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic, after protests in the South American country over the government’s handling of the health crisis.

Paraguayans take part in a protest against President Mario Abdo Benitez's health policies and the lack of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccines in front of the National Congress in Asuncion, Paraguay March 9, 2021. REUTERS/Cesar Olmedo

Thousands of Paraguayans have protested in the capital Asunción over the lack of medicine and intensive care beds amid a spike in coronavirus cases and calls to impeach President Mario Abdo.

The U.S. State Department said Blinken spoke with Abdo on Sunday, outlining U.S. efforts to help tackle the pandemic, and underscored the importance of free expression, peaceful demonstration, and the rule of law.

“The Secretary stressed the importance of continuing to work with democratic regional and global partners, including Taiwan, to overcome this global pandemic, combat corruption, and increase transparency and accountability,” it said in a statement.

Paraguay is Chinese-claimed Taiwan’s sole remaining diplomatic ally in South America. China views democratic Taiwan as one of its provinces, with no right to the trappings of a state.

The United States has expressed concern at Beijing’s efforts to win over the remaining 15 countries which still have formal ties with Taipei and expand Chinese influence, especially in Latin America which Washington traditionally views as its backyard.

Paraguay had kept infections very low early last year but COVID-19 cases have jumped since September and vaccines have been slow to arrive, though Chile donated around 20,000 doses of the Chinese-made Sinovac vaccine to Paraguay this month.

Paraguay’s Senate last week approved a declaration of support for a plan to use $12.8 million in funds given by Taiwan for a housing development project to be used to buy 2 million vaccine doses.

Taiwan Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Joanne Ou said Taiwan and Paraguay have a “solid friendship”.

“Our government will continue to uphold the spirit of pulling together in times of trouble and trying our best to assist allies to fight the pandemic together within the scope of our capabilities,” she said.

Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by Daniela Desantis in Asunción; Editing by Stephen Coates