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COVID hits dozens of Latin leaders, including presidents

HAVANA – The COVID-19 pandemic is sweeping through the leadership of Latin America, with two more presidents and powerful officials testing positive this week for the new coronavirus, adding a destabilizing new element to the region’s public health and economic crises.

In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro, 65, announced his illness Tuesday and is using it to publicly extol hydroxychloroquine, the unproven malaria drug that he’s been promoting as a treatment for COVID-19, and now takes himself.

Bolivian interim President Jeanine Añez, 53, made her own diagnosis public Thursday, throwing her already troubled political propects into further doubt.

And in Venezuela, 57-year-old socialist party chief Diosdado Cabello said Thursday on Twitter that he, too, had tested positive, at least temporarily sidelining a larger-than-life figure considered the second-most-powerful person in the country.

Another powerful figure, Venezuela's Oil Minister Tarek El Aissami, announced Friday he has the bug.

An Associated Press review of official statements from public officials across Latin America found at least 42 confirmed cases of new coronavirus in leaders ranging from presidents to mayors of major cities, along with dozens, likely hundreds, of officials from smaller cities and towns. In most cases, high-ranking officials recovered and are back at work. But several are still struggling with the disease.

Many leaders have used their diagnoses to call on the public to heighten precautions like social distancing and mask wearing. But like Bolsonaro, some have drawn attention to unproven treatments with potentially harmful side effects.

El Salvador’s Interior Minister, Mario Durán, was diagnosed on July 5, becoming the second Cabinet member there to fall ill.

“I am asking you, now more than ever, to stay home and take all preventine measures,’’ he said after his diagnosis. “Protect your families.’’

Durán was receiving treatment at home on Friday.

Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández announced June 16 that he and his wife had tested positive, along with two other people who worked closely with the couple.

The following day the 51-year-old Hernández was hospitalized after doctors determined he had pneumonia. The president’s illness came as the pandemic spread from an early epicenter in the northern city of San Pedro Sula to the capital of Tegucigalpa, where cases surged.

Hernández said he had started what he called the “MAIZ treatment,” an experimental and unproven combination of microdacyn, azithromycin, ivermectin and zinc that his government is promoting as an affordable way of attacking the disease. He was released from the hospital July 2.

The revelation that Cabello – whose commanding voice resonates from Venezuelan airwaves every Wednesday on his weekly television show – has COVID-19 will likely have a sobering impact on the many people who thought their isolated country was relatively shielded from the virus, said Luis Vicente León, a Venezuelan political analyst.

Venezuela – already largely cut off to the outside world before COVID-19 – has had far fewer registered cases than many other countries in Latin America, though in recent weeks the number of new confirmed infections has been steadily increasing.

Cabello said he was in isolation while getting treatment. A day earlier, he’d canceled his regular TV appearance, telling followers he was battling “strong allergies.”

No information has been released on whether Cabello is hospitalized or what type of medical care he is receiving. Venezuela is considered one of the least prepared countries in the world to confront the pandemic. Hospitals are routinely short on basic supplies like water, electricity and medicine.

“I think this shows Venezuela is on the same route all the other countries,” León said.

In the Caribbean, Luis Abinader, the newly elected president of the Dominican Republic, contracted and recovered from COVID-19 during his campaign.

Like Bolsonaro, many Latin leaders have kept up a schedule of public appearances even as the region has become one of the hardest-hit in the world.

That poses a growing risk to governance in the region, said Felicia Knaul, a professor of medicine who directs the Institute for Advanced Study of the Americas at the University of Miami.

“We’re trying to keep our health providers safe. It’s the same for our government leaders. We don’t want a Cabinet ill and in hospital. It would be tremendously destabilizing in a situation that’s already extremely unstable," she said. “That’s a reason why being out in public unless everyone around you has masks on is dangerous. They have to be responsible.”

Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei placed his entire Cabinet and their staff in quarantine Thursday after one of his ministers tested positive.

In Bolivia, officials said the interim president Añez, had not been been displaying symptoms and was in good spirits in her official residence on Friday.

At least six other Bolivian ministers and vice ministers have been infected, and at least eight staff members.

COVID-19 is spreading rapidly in Bolivia, overwhelming the already weak medical system and funeral services to the point where families in the central city of Cochabamba have been holding funerals in the street.

With the country in crisis, some polls have shown Añez in last place in a three-way presidential race leading to September elections. Añez, who took office after President Evo Morales was ousted during national unrest last year, does not have a vice president and, if she could no longer serve, the next in the line of succession is Senate President Eva Copa, a member of Morales' party and a bitter opponent of Añez.

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Biller reported from Rio de Janeiro. Also contributing were Marcos Aleman in San Salvador, Christine Armario in Bogota, Christopher Sherman in Mexico City, Carlos Valdez in La Paz, Bolivia, and correspondents around the region.