Caribbean leaders seek postponement of OAS vote amid the coronavirus pandemic

Caribbean nations are calling on the Organization of American States and the Trump administration to respect COVID-19 U.S. public-gathering measures and postpone a scheduled 10 a.m. Friday vote in Washington to elect the next head of the hemispheric organization.

Despite the pandemic being a concern for everyone in the world, Caribbean leaders and their representatives say the OAS appears determined to ignore social-distancing measures.

“The proposed meeting could reasonably result in further spread of COVID-19 in the DC region and reasonably contribute to the spread of COVID-19 as participants from foreign countries travel,” said a May 18 letter signed by Barbados’ Permanent Representative to the OAS, Noel A. Lynch.

Thirteen of the 14 members of the Caribbean Community that are part of the OAS signed the letter. It is addressed to several officials, including current OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, who is seeking re-election, and the chair of the permanent council, currently U.S. Ambassador Carlos Trujillo. Trujillo was recently nominated to become U.S. assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere.

Only Haiti, which recently joined the U.S.-backed Lima Group regional bloc that recognizes Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó as president, did not sign. St. Lucia, the only other Caribbean nation that is a member of the Lima bloc, did sign the postponement request.

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Friday’s vote pits Almagro, a former Uruguay diplomat who once pledged not to seek re-election as head of the OAS, against María Fernanda Espinosa, the former foreign minister of Ecuador and president of the United Nations General Assembly for the 73rd session. With Venezuela’s crisis at the center of the election, Almagro is being heavily supported by the U.S. and its allies. Espinosa is backed by foes of Almagro’s and the Trump administration foes who have criticized the OAS’ hardline stance on the oil-rich South American nation.

Almagro’s tenure, which began in 2015, has divided the region. As a result, both he and Espinosa have campaigned heavily, with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo publicly stating U.S. support for Almagro.

Responding to the Caricom nations’ request on Twitter, Espinosa said, “The #coronavirus crisis demands we act with responsibility and solidarity. Beyond any political interest, the upcoming #OAS election must prioritize our health. We cannot endanger OAS workers and the diplomatic corp and contradict US restrictions and #WHO #PAHO recommendations.”

Caribbean nations say they do not understand the rush. Almagro’s term does not end until May 26, and that of his assistant secretary general, whose position is also up for a vote, ends June 17.

“The Organization would send a terrible signal of irresponsibility to the world should it proceed to hold the General Assembly on Friday, March 20, 2020,” the letter reads. “No one would have any way of knowing how many of such persons are infected by COVID-19 even if they show no obvious symptoms of it. We are also very aware that if any person contracts COVID-19 in the course of the General Assembly, it would set off a chain of potential infections that could be fatal or would severely strain the medical facilities in Washington, DC and elsewhere in the US.”

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The letter notes that Friday’s General Assembly would gather 100 people in one room, and therefore be in violation of a Washington, D.C., ordinance prohibiting mass gatherings of more than 50 individuals.

It also cites advice of Pan-American Health Organization Director Dr. Carissa Etienne. In a March 17 email Carissa noted that “in the United States of America, gathering of 10 people or more are discouraged.”

“Considering the rapidly evolving epidemiological situation, as well as the fact that social distancing measures adopted are rapidly becoming more stringent in a collegial effort to slow down the spread of COVID-19, cancellation of the event is highly recommended,” Etienne, who was responding to an email seeking guidance, said.

The Miami Herald reached out to the OAS via email, telephone and on Twitter for comment about the Caribbean Community’s request and concerns. No one responded. On Tuesday, the organization posted on its Twitter page that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services planned to Inspect its facilities for the OAS Special Assembly to guarantee the safety of the rooms.

Ambassadors have been informed that a walk-through was done by a representative. The inspector was told by the OAS that it plans to reduce participation from 250 to less than 50, and the 34 member states would only be allowed one delegate.

But that’s still not acceptaable, Caribbean leaders say.

“The people attending the meeting have not been checked; do they have any preconditions? How old are they? Are they a vulnerable group?” said Sir Ronald Sanders, Antigua and Barbuda’s OAS ambassador. “What is their travel history? Where have they been recently? None of those things have been checked.

“In any event it is putting at risk the lives of people who will attend that meeting,” the ambassador added. “At this crucial time when the world is in a crisis over COVID-19 that governments are desperately trying to control, the OAS would be showing a most irresponsible example.”

Should the vote go on as schedule Friday, ambassadors said there is a real risk that member states may be forced not to attend resulting in “one of two troubling results for the OAS.”

“Either (i) that there may not be a quorum and the meeting will have to be abandoned; or (ii) the meeting would be regarded as lacking legitimacy with damaging and far-reaching consequences for the effectiveness of the Organization and its capacity to continue as a representative body of the nations of our Hemisphere,” the letter said.

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