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Latin America reels from pandemic, desperate for vaccines as Blinken makes first trip to region


(San José, Costa Rica) — Days before Vice President Kamala Harris heads south to Central America, Secretary of State Antony Blinken is making a similar trip focused on migration and development, but to a region still reeling from the pandemic.

While the Biden administration has promised to share up to 80 million COVID-19 vaccines overseas, it still has not detailed where or how it will provide them, as some Latin American countries, desperate for doses, lobby for help.

Blinken arrived in Costa Rica Tuesday afternoon, where he will attend a summit of Central American countries, as well as Mexico and the Dominican Republic.

“We increasingly face common challenges requiring collaborative solutions,” the State Department said in a statement about his trip Tuesday. “It is imperative that we work together to promote democracy and good governance, respect for human rights, security, prosperity, and good environmental stewardship.”

Migration will be at the top of Blinken’s agenda as the Biden administration continues to promote good governance and economic growth to counter the historic levels of southern border crossings, but the one thing several of these countries say they need more immediately is vaccines.

So far, the Biden administration has said it will provide 80 million vaccines overseas by the end of this month — 20 million federally authorized ones and 60 million AstraZeneca doses which are not yet approved for U.S. use. But none of those have been allocated or shipped yet, and the U.S. is being urged to act more quickly to help its Western hemisphere neighbors.

“These next few weeks are vital that in particular the U.S. frees up excess (vaccines) to go to programs that exist” in the region, World Bank President David Malpass said Tuesday.

The vaccination rates throughout Latin America remain low, with the infection and death rates soaring in some countries. The region passed the 1 million death toll last week, and just Tuesday, the World Health Organization warned South America “remains of very high concern,” with eight of the top 10 countries with the highest mortality rates in the Americas region.

Colombia’s Vice President Marta Lucía Ramírez met with Blinken on Friday in Washington and said that she urged him and other U.S. officials to provide Colombia some of those 80 million doses or to “loan” other AstraZeneca doses, as the Biden administration did for Canada and Mexico earlier this year.

“For us, it is so urgent to accelerate these (vaccinations) precisely because in Colombia, we have the social unrest, which is made in part by the uncertainty and the fear that so many citizens are feeling,” Ramírez told ABC News and other outlets during a press round table Thursday.

Just 6.5 percent of Colombians are fully vaccinated, according to the University of Oxford’s Our World in Data project, and the country has been rocked by weeks of ongoing protests prompted by tax reform that have morphed into a national crisis, fueled in part by the pandemic and its economic damage.

Other countries in the region are even worse off. In Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, for example, less than 3% have gotten even one shot.

“We have to think about where the urgency to act is most significant, and unfortunately for Latin America, quite a number of countries are hit with the brutal force of COVID-19,” said International Monetary Fund Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva Tuesday.

Blinken is expected to meet the foreign ministers of Guatemala and Honduras, along with their “Northern Triangle” neighbor El Salvador, on Tuesday night. Vaccines are sure to come up in those conversations, especially as the Chinese government makes a stronger push to provide its vaccines as leverage.

Honduras’ president said last month that his government may end its diplomatic recognition of Taiwan and establish ties with China in order to access Chinese vaccines — a sign of his country’s growing desperation and of how China wields vaccines as a diplomatic tool.

While the pandemic rages in Latin America, a senior White House official said last week that the Biden administration will prioritize countries with the highest cases or spikes in contagion for the 80 million vaccine doses they intend to send overseas before the end of June.

That means that Latin America “is going to be a focus of our efforts to combat the pandemic,” Juan Gonzalez, National Security Council senior director for the Western Hemisphere, told reporters Wednesday.

Blinken is not Biden’s first Cabinet secretary to go to Latin America, a region the administration has said they will prioritize after four years of Trump’s inattention beyond Venezuela and Cuba.

Last week, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield led a presidential delegation to Ecuador for the inauguration of their new president. On the sidelines of that, Thomas-Greenfield, Gonzalez and others had about a half dozen meetings with regional leaders.

“The chorus and the consistent theme throughout was that the countries of the region are welcoming re-engagement by the United States,” said Gonzalez.

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