MIAMI – As much as $110 million in U.S. funding for disease prevention in Latin America as well as U.S. support for Venezuelan migrants has been thrown into doubt as part of President Donald Trump's decision to halt funding to the World Health Organization over its response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Rep. 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 Organization 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 U.S. funding for the life-saving work” by PAHO in Venezuela, the New York Democrat wrote in the letter, which was also signed by Rep. Albio Sires, chairman of the subcommittee focused on Latin America.
PAHO said this week that the U.S. had suspended its contributions as an extension of Trump's funding freeze for the WHO.
But two U.S. officials cautioned that no final decision had been made. One said the next U.S. payment isn't due until late May and an exclusion for PAHO is being discussed. Both officials insisted on anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
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 U.S. is by far its largest contributor, responsible for 60% of its overall budget. Currently the U.S. owes PAHO $110 million in assessed contributions for 2019 and 2020.
The State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development would not comment.
Engel in his letter said he was dismayed to learn that $12 million in U.S. funding for PAHO to conduct diagnostics and tracing for the coronavirus in Venezuela and among Venezuelan migrants in Colombia was on hold.
He said U.S.-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 program supported by $3.4 million in USAID funding enabled 9 million Venezuelan children to get shots and paved the way for a 90% decline in measles cases from 5,800 in 2018 to less than 600 in 2019. He cited studies indicating as many as 94% 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 organization, saying that Trump's freeze in funding for the WHO had been “extended” to include U.S. funding for PAHO.
“Over the years we have enjoyed a very firm collaboration and technical support from the U.S. government,” Dr. Carissa Etienne said in remarks to journalists Tuesday. “This mutual collaboration between the U.S. 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.”
Trump two weeks ago halted funding to the Geneva-based WHO, arguing that it had mimicked Chinese assurances about the coronvairus' 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 criticizing the decision, calling it ill-timed.
PAHO is one of the few ways the U.S. is able to channel aid to Venezuela since it doesn't recognize 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 U.S., Colombia doesn't recognize Maduro.
Maduro has consistently rejected U.S. offers of humanitarian aid, calling them an underhanded attempt to destabilize 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.”
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.