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Iran, Venezuela and other US foes fight coronavirus amid American sanctions

Tracy Wilkinson and Nabih Bulos, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

BEIRUT -- Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Islamic faction in Lebanon deemed a terrorist group by the U.S., has decades of experience fighting wars. But not the kind it launched this week.

Armed with red, yellow and green Hezbollah flags and face masks decorated with the same colors, thousands of doctors, nurses and medical technicians began mobilizing to battle a new adversary: the coronavirus.

But Hezbollah, along with the governments of Iran, Venezuela and others, is facing the pandemic at the same time it lurches under the weight of harsh U.S. economic sanctions that have blocked its access to money, imports and international alliances. Now as virtually every country in the world grapples with the health crisis, the American pressure campaign against its foes is drawing attention.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, whom the Trump administration has been trying to oust for more than a year, accused the U.S. Tuesday of "inhumane" exploitation of the coronavirus crisis, using it as a way to corner him and his Socialist government. U.S. sanctions have been levied against numerous Venezuelan officials, businesses and its lifeline, oil production.

Venezuela is only beginning to detect cases of COVID-19, the highly infectious disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and its collapsed health system is woefully ill-equipped to treat an onslaught of victims, residents say. Without ventilators, medicines, water and sometimes electricity, the best some hospitals have been able to offer is hand sanitizer.

The Trump administration last week tightened its sanctions, adding more Venezuelan officials to its blacklist, which bars them from doing business with U.S. citizens and companies. And the Justice Department indicted Maduro and more than a dozen members of his inner circle on drug-trafficking and related criminal charges.

 

On Tuesday, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo offered a carrot, saying the U.S. would gradually lift sanctions if Maduro stepped down and dissolved several of the governing bodies he dominated, including the Constituent Assembly, a largely rubber-stamp legislative chamber. The deal would include forming a five-member transitional government that would hold elections within nine months.

Maduro quickly rejected the offer and vowed his country would withstand the pandemic with aid arriving from China, including 55 tons of testing equipment, masks and protective gear, respirators, antiviral medicines and X-ray machines.

Iran, similarly, has lashed out at Washington, blaming sanctions for tying its hands in fighting the disease.

Iran has officially counted more than 3,000 deaths after initially downplaying and concealing the impact of coronavirus and bungling its countermeasures.

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