Venezuela opposition seeks to use frozen U.S. funds to import COVID-19 vaccines

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela’s opposition, recognized by the United States as the legitimate government, on Friday said it would request Washington’s permission use funds frozen in U.S. accounts to pay for coronavirus vaccines.

The United States in 2019 froze $342 million of Venezuelan government funds in U.S. accounts as part of a series of sanctions aimed at ousting President Nicolas Maduro, who it labels a dictator and accuses of rigging his 2018 re-election.

While Washington recognizes opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate head of state, Guaido’s interim government must still request licenses from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control - which enforces sanctions - to access frozen funds.

The Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) has said that between 1.4 million and 2.4 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines were reserved for Venezuela through the WHO’s COVAX initiative, which provides affordable vaccines for poor countries.

But even if the opposition obtained the funds, it was unclear whether it will be able to reach a deal with Maduro to import the vaccines. Maduro retains power and the military’s support, and calls Guaido a U.S. puppet seeking to oust him in a coup.

Maduro’s Vice President Delcy Rodriguez said this week that Venezuela would not authorize AstraZeneca’s vaccine - one of the main vaccines used by COVAX - due to its “effects on patients.”

At least 13 European countries stopped administering AstraZeneca’s shot after reports of a small number of blood disorders but EU and British regulators later said the benefits of that shot outweighed any risks.

Venezuela has received vaccine doses from Russia and China, and Rodriguez said she had met with PAHO officials to reiterate the government’s demand that the bank of England release gold frozen in Venezuelan accounts to pay COVAX.

Venezuela’s information ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

The opposition’s resolution authorized the use of up to $30.3 million to pay COAX and invest in the cold chain required for vaccination.

Neither the U.S. State Department nor OFAC responded to requests for comment.

Reporting by Mayela Armas in Caracas; Writing by Luc Cohen and Alistair Bell