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Commentary

U.S. Needs To Match China's Latin American Shot Show Now – Starting In Venezuela

ChineseVaccinesPatsPlane.jpeg
El Salvador Government via AP
BEIJING BENEVOLENCE? Chinese Ambassador to El Salvador Ou Jianhong welcomes a shipment of Chinese COVID-19 vaccines at the San Salvador airport this month - which arrived on a Boeing 767 belonging to the New England Patriots.

COMMENTARY There are diplomatic cracks in China's vaccine diplomacy that the U.S. can exploit in Latin America – like confronting Venezuela's regime cruelty.

However you feel about China’s totalitarian communist regime, you have to tip a Mao cap to its COVID-19 vaccine diplomacy campaign – especially in Latin America.

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In fact, if the U.S. doesn’t act quickly to match China’s shot show in this hemisphere, it risks hemorrhaging more political and economic influence to Beijing on its own geopolitical street.

There are cracks in China’s vaccine benevolence the U.S. can exploit right now – especially in Venezuela.

READ MORE: Does COVID Aid to Latin America Reflect Chinese Expansion - and U.S. Decline?

But first Washington needs to acknowledge the hemispheric hole it’s in. Even though China’s vaccines are some of the least effective you can put in your arm, the more than 165 million doses it’s sold or donated to vaccine-vacant Latin America and the Caribbean is better than nothing – which is what the region feels it’s gotten from the U.S.

When the pandemic is over, the Americas will be buried under propaganda pics of Chinese officials welcoming crates of Sinopharm, CanSino and Sinovac onto Latin American airport tarmacs. Even a New England Patriots Boeing 767 ferried half a million Chinese doses to El Salvador this month.

The U.S. by comparison looks like the Grinch Who Hoarded Pfizer. The Biden Administration has promised to send 80 million doses of mostly AstraZeneca to countries around the world by the Fourth of July; it has pledged $4 billion to the COVAX effort to supply poorer countries. But it’s unknown how much of that will be steered to Latin America, which is arguably the region hardest hit by the pandemic both medically and economically.

China conditions vaccines on ditching Taiwan and ships them to a regime that conditions vaccination on political loyalty – and the U.S. can't offer an alternative to that in its own hemisphere?

Still, Latin American capitals are beginning to sense China’s vaccine diplomacy is diplomatically defective.

For starters, China’s critics say it’s no coincidence some of Latin America’s smallest and poorest countries – including Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Paraguay – haven’t received China’s vaccines. They have diplomatic relations with Taiwan, which Beijing insists is part of China. Honduras and Paraguay report China has actually made severing ties with Taiwan a condition of receiving vaccine doses. Talk about side effects.

WEAPONIZING MEDICINE

Beijing denies the charge. But to politicize if not weaponize access to desperately needed medicine that way isn’t just reprehensible, it’s reprehensibly hypocritical. It puts Chinese President Xi Jinping in the same dark light as former President Trump, whom countries like China accused last year of weaponizing pandemic aid – extending it to far-flung U.S enemies like Iran and North Korea, but not to next-door foes like Cuba and Venezuela, because exile voters from those countries could, and did, help Trump win Florida last November.

Economically collapsed Venezuela brings up perhaps the most egregious weaponization of Chinese vaccine distribution – which Xi and China should be condemning, but haven’t.

Here's Venezuela's cretinous vaccine "plan": Since China’s doses began arriving in Venezuela last month, the country’s authoritarian socialist regime has required people to present a new national ID card – the so-called Carnet de la Patria – to get immunized. But to get the Carnet you have to all but swear allegiance to President Nicolás Maduro and his thug government – which about a third of the population has understandably refused to do.

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A Venezuelan woman receives a dose of China's Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine in Caracas this year.

To recap: China allegedly withholds vaccines from countries that recognize Taiwan, but happily keeps the pipeline open – 1.3 million more doses delivered to Venezuela this week – to a dictatorship that conditions vaccination on indoctrination.

And the U.S. can't offer an alternative to that in its own hemisphere?

International relations experts urged Trump to more humanely leverage U.S. economic sanctions on Venezuela in exchange for more humane behavior from Maduro's regime. Let some Venezuelan oil sales to the U.S. resume, for example, if the regime accepted payment only in food and medicine – and allowed independent international NGOs to fairly distribute it.

That approach should apply to vaccines, as well – especially now, when U.S sanctions are hurting the regime enough that Maduro says he’s open to that kind of discussion. The Biden Administration could pledge vaccine donations to Venezuela but make delivery contingent on internationally monitored, non-Carnet-conditioned distribution – and ease the oil embargo if Maduro complies.

If Maduro accepts the deal, it puts a big dent in China’s vaccine diplomacy halo. If he refuses, he looks like the jerk he is. Either way, it’d be a good start for a U.S. vaccine diplomacy campaign in Latin America – which can’t start soon enough.