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Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's plan to pay for COVID-19 vaccines through oil shipments aims to sideline the country's opposition, which had made strides in securing inoculations, analysts and opposition lawmakers said on Monday.
Maduro on Sunday proposed an "oil-for-vaccines" deal, without providing details on how such a scheme would work. The crisis-stricken OPEC nation's crude exports have plummeted since the United States sanctioned state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela in January of 2019.
Earlier this month, Venezuela's opposition - recognized as the South American country's legitimate government by Washington - said it would seek to use Venezuelan government funds frozen in the United States to pay for vaccines through the World Health Organization's (WHO) COVAX program, which provides doses to poor countries.
Maduro's government later said it would not greenlight doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, the main inoculation used by COVAX in Latin America, citing side effects. Critics argued that move was intended to torpedo the deal to avoid handing the opposition a political victory.
"It is all a little game to cover up the criminal act of impeding the COVAX deal," Luis Stefanelli, an opposition lawmaker on the National Assembly's energy committee, said of the oil-for-vaccines proposal in a telephone interview.
Venezuela's Information Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Maduro - accused of corruption, human rights violations, and rigging his 2018 re-election - remains in power despite the two-year, U.S.-backed campaign to oust him. Some U.S. lawmakers have raised concerns that the sanctions are exacerbating a years-long economic crisis and harming ordinary Venezuelans.
The government blames the sanctions for Venezuela's difficulties paying for humanitarian goods. The country has received fewer than one million vaccine doses from allies Russia and China as a second wave of the virus accelerates, threatening to overwhelm its already-fragile healthcare system.
A further 50,000 doses of Russia's Sputnik V vaccine arrived to Venezuela on Monday, state television footage showed. Health Minister Carlos Alvarado said authorities would use the doses to inoculate more healthcare workers and elderly people.
To facilitate vaccine access, the opposition and business groups have developed alternatives designed to avoid having the government directly pay for the shots. While the U.S. sanctions exempt humanitarian goods, banks are often reluctant to handle transactions linked to Venezuela's government.
Opposition leaders argue that sanctions prevent Maduro's government from "looting" the country's natural resources.
"He wants to raise the costs for those who are against his ability to export," Antero Alvarado, Venezuela director at energy consultancy Gas Energy Latin America, said of Maduro's oil-for-vaccines plan. "He is obviously playing the victim."