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Rubio on China and Russia’s Coercive Vaccine Diplomacy in the Western Hemisphere

Nov 18, 2021 | Press Releases

Washington, D.C. — U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) spoke during a Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Subcommittee hearing on China and Russia’s coercive vaccine diplomacy in the Western Hemisphere. Rubio asked witnesses what factors the U.S. uses to determine vaccine distribution in the Western Hemisphere, why the Biden Administration failed to invite Venezuela’s Interim Government to the Summit of Democracies, and how the Western Hemisphere can be an ideal partner in strategic supply chains. 

Rubio is the Ranking Members of the Subcommittee On Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights, and Global Women’s Issues.

Witnesses: 

Panel 1: 

Mr. Kevin O’Reilly: Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs

Mr. Peter Natiello: Acting Assistant Administrator, USAID Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean

Panel 2: 

Dr. Arachu Castro: Director of the Collaborative Group for Health Equity in Latin America (CHELA) at Tulane University

Mr. Dan Restrepo: Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress

Mr. Daniel  Runde: Senior Vice President at the Center for Strategic and International Studies

Part I, II, and III of Rubio’s remarks are linked and a full transcript is below. 

On what factors the U.S. uses to determine vaccine distribution in the Western Hemisphere, and China and Russia’s usage of disinformation campaigns to oppose American vaccines: 

Rubio: When we determine who gets what, when we make this big purchase of vaccines and we start sending them, what is the criteria we use to determine if this country is going to get it, this country is not, this country is going to get “X” amount, this country’s going to get that amount? Is there a criteria that’s being used to determine how this is being distributed globally [and], in particular, how that impacts [the Western Hemisphere]?

O’Reilly: I think that the goal is [to look] at capacity. How we can maximize the number of vaccine doses available in a country and do so equitably for the greatest number of countries, the greatest number of people at risk within those societies. [We] take a look at the data in terms of surges and how to mitigate potential surges, how to cut off surges when they’ve already appeared, and [give] priority to protecting people in the health care sectors who need to care for those who are ill. So we try to base it on the best and most reliable public health data that we have available, and we do try to give priority as well to areas at risk. 

Natiello: We look at a variety of factors, including case rates, death rates and hospitalizations, current vaccination rates in a country, again responding to surges, and a country’s ability to receive vaccines and put shots into arms, as well as U.S. national and economic security. 

Rubio: Obviously, the case numbers are what they are. Everyone’s had a surge, some bigger than others. Depends on how much they’re testing, how much they’re monitoring. The hospitalization rates are often dependent on whether there are hospitals or hospital bed availability. What I’m hearing, though–potentially–is a part of it is if a country doesn’t have, for example, a health care system that can actually organize people and get people vaccinated, if a country doesn’t have the ability to store vaccines and get them to people fast enough before they expire, that, I would imagine, is a factor in how we’re determining this? Donating 10 million vaccines to a country that doesn’t have health care infrastructure to distribute them, and therefore they’re going to go bad, they’re going to expire, and they’re not going to get to people ? is that a major factor in how this is being decided?

Natiello: So those are important criteria, and that’s precisely why the U.S. is focused on strengthening health systems in our partner nations, because we want them to be able to not only receive the vaccine but to get shots in arms, which is why we do things like support the cold chain, support training of vaccinators, support communications campaigns to overcome vaccine hesitancy in some countries. And in some countries, the level of readiness far exceeds that in other countries. So the challenge, for instance, in a country like Haiti, is very, very, very different than a country like Brazil or Honduras. So these are the kind of things that we look at. These are the kind of things that we apply U.S. technical assistance to help get those vaccines in arms. 

Rubio: The other thing I wanted to ask, both the Kremlin and the Communist Party of China are engaged globally in a large-scale disinformation campaign trying to discredit the American origin vaccines, particularly Moderna and Pfizer, and promote their own. So what are we doing in the region in particular? I think there’s a broader communication issue. We’ve seen the RT Spanish version has grown an audience, unfortunately, and it’s a big challenge in the region that we have to confront as well. But what are we doing to counter that in particular, this sort of disinformation campaign about vaccines specifically in Latin America?

O’Reilly: First of all, sir, bringing light to exactly what you spoke about. You can’t play whack-a-mole on every bit of disinformation. What you have to do is make sure that you bring true facts, accurate information, you have to do it repetitively, and you have to make sure that you work to get those messages out to communities… The fundamental principle is you have to beat bad information, which is rife, and disinformation, which is rife, and has been motivated from Russia, in particular, but also from China. And you have to flood the zone with better, more reliable information, and make sure that people who are trusted in the communities all over this hemisphere where their governments are having uptake problems, bring that information to their publics so that they overcome this challenge. 

On why the Biden Administration failed to invite Venezuela’s Interim Government to the Summit of Democracies:

Rubio: Mr. O’Reilly, while we have you here today, I want to take this opportunity to talk about the Summit of Democracies that’s coming up in December. 

The Government of Interim President Juan Guaidó, the official U.S. policy remains that it is the legitimate government of Venezuela. Is that correct? 

O’Reilly: That is correct. 

Rubio: Why isn’t his government on the list of countries that are being invited to the Summit of Democracies? Or, has that changed?

O’Reilly: The White House makes the final call on this White House scheduled and structured event. I’m not aware that the final list of participants and speakers has been completed. We certainly have not invited every government in the hemisphere to this event. 

It will be a representative, a group of government and non-governmental officials and representatives. And it is the first phase of a two set phase summit process, which will end up in an in-person event next year. And its principles are a fundamental through line as well for our Summit of the Americas preparation. 

Rubio: I understand all that. My point is, if the U.S. policy is that the Interim Government of President Guaidó is a legitimate government and we are trying to strengthen both the leverage and credibility of the pro-democracy movement in Venezuela, not inviting them even in an initial list to a Summit of Democracies is certainly not helpful to that. 

And I would argue, it is quite damaging. And so my point is, I get that the White House makes the final decision. But, I’m curious, what is the State Department’s position on it? Or, if you could share with us, is the State Department against it getting included in the list? Are you involved in the formation of the list? 

I would imagine that they’re talking to you as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere about who should be on that list. 

O’Reilly: Yeah, we’ve been in consultations with the organizers within the administration of the event pretty much from the get go Senator. And first, to the fundamental question, look, we recognize the National Assembly. The National Assembly decided to elect as its President, given that Nicolás Maduro stole the Presidential election, manipulated the prior election–we could call it election–for the National Assembly and has skewed the table so rawly that Sunday’s event will in no way represent anything that’s free and fair. We understand where democratic principles rest in terms of our relationship with Venezuela. We understand why it was blunting the democratic aspirations of the Venezuelan people. 

Rubio: That’s all great. Why isn’t that reflected? I would imagine in the first iteration of a list that’s put out, you would think that it would be at the top of the list, not an afterthought or ‘we’ll wait and see what we’re going to do’. 

My question, do you favor them being on the list? Is there anybody in the State Department that’s against them being on the list? That’s what I’m trying to get at. Why aren’t they on the list? I mean, I can’t imagine, given everything you’ve just said that we’ve forgotten about how important this would be for them to be included. 

O’Reilly: Senator, I must say, in terms of the regional focus of my portfolio, it’s my highest priority to work to support the democratic aspirations of the Venezuelan people. It’s, I think, exceptionally important that Mr. Maduro accept the reality of what he’s done to his country and to come back to the table to negotiate a fairer, a more democratic, more open society. 

Rubio: I understand, but that doesn’t explain why Guaidó is not–or whoever they choose–whether it’s him or somebody else to be the speaker of the National Assembly, why they aren’t on the list, given everything you’ve just said. 

O’Reilly: I understand the concern and I’ll bring it back with me, Senator.  

On how the Western Hemisphere can be an ideal partner in strategic supply chains:

Rubio: I could probably ask this to the entire panel. I’ll start with you Mr. Runde, one of the things I’m fascinated about, in general, is supply chains. And the fact that our supply chains, in this country, are deeply dependent on locations in the Asia-Pacific region for a lot of different reasons. And it strikes me that if we had some of these supply chains, obviously in the United States, preferably, but not if not in the U.S., in the Western Hemisphere, it would have a dual purpose. 

First, it would create some diversity and therefore we wouldn’t see some of the container backlogs at the other ports and be available to take some of this. And second, it would solve one of the socio-economic issues in some of these countries. In essence,. I know the answer, but I imagine a world in which Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Haiti, or countries that had vibrant manufacturing sectors downscale on the production, but that created stable employment for young people, so that they wouldn’t have to leave their countries. I get rule of law and other things of that nature become a problem in many places. In particular, as I look at Pfizer designating factories in China as the main manufacturer of vaccines for the greater region that includes Taiwan, you can only imagine how that would be used. And third, because I think we’re in an era that I think is going to be–the best way to say it–is biomedical nationalism. 

There are plenty of countries around the world that have gone through this and said, never again will we not have the inability to make oxygen, the inability to make PPE, the inability to make medicine, the inability to manufacture a vaccine, and our basic goods because pandemics disrupt supply chains. But so potentially can geopolitical conflict. 

So, in specific and then in general, why haven’t we seen and what can we do to make it more so that places like Pfizer, Moderna, and other pharmaceutical companies return or enter the Western Hemisphere as a place to manufacture? Obviously, it’s a U.S. territory, but Puerto Rico is a logical place, and it’s one that I deeply believe that we should reinstate. But what more can we do to encourage that? Specifically, when it comes to the pandemic and then more broadly in general in the region on other topics? 

I know these countries have to do a lot, but what can we do to make the region more attractive in both the short and long term? For this, and I’ll start with you, Mr. Runde, but I’ll open it up to the whole panel. 

Runde: Thank you, Senator. This is one of the key questions of the COVID pandemic. I’ve done fifteen hundred Zoom calls since March 12, 2020, and so have you, Senator. And one of my deep thoughts is that we’re going to get a partial economic divorce from China. Maybe they can visit with their spouse and they can bring their new spouse to Thanksgiving, and maybe we could sit together at graduation for the kids. But we’re going to have a very different kind of relationship with Mainland China going forward. And so I think that’s what I’ll call the silver lining. I think everyone’s going to get a partial economic divorce from China.

Rubio: China plus one.

Runde: Yeah. Look, I think you get the idea, Senator. I think the point is that there are a number of steps we’re going to move from a ‘just in time’ supply chain role to ‘just in case’ supply chain world. I don’t think anybody in this room ever wants to depend on Mainland China ever for PPEs, pills or ventilators. When they started making threats about ‘we’re going to cut you off,’ those are fighting words. I think that was a wake up call. 

There’s several things we could do specifically and you, the Senators, could do. Ecuador wants a Free Trade Agreement. We ought to do it. Uruguay wants a Free Trade Agreement. We ought to do it. Brazil would like a Free Trade Agreement. We ought to do it. We ought to also fulfill the promise of CAFTA-DR. We haven’t fully seen that happen. I think we have an opportunity at the Summit of the Americas to put some concrete things on the table. So I think one of the opportunities will be to ask the Biden-Harris Administration, what are you doing in the aspects of trade to enable some of these things? 

I also think we ought to be using our foreign aid to grease the skids of some of these shifts in global supply chains. Japan is doing this. They’re providing a billion dollars to have Japanese companies move their factories from Mainland China to, say, Southeast Asia. In theory, Mexico and Central America and the Caribbean or Colombia and Brazil could be net winners of these global shifts in supply chains. So some of it is about trade agreements, some of it is about foreign aid. I think we ought to have and continue to have a constructive dialog with the Government of Mexico. I think in theory, Mexico ought to be a net winner of some of these shifts in global supply chains. 

And then finally, on Puerto Rico, I absolutely agree with you, Senator. We ought to revisit some of those tax agreements that I guess went away in the 1990s. We ought to look at that. I know Governor Fortuño is someone who’s very knowledgeable about these issues and someone who I would be consulting about the details of. But I think you put your finger on something very important, Senator. Thank you, 

Dr. Castro: Senator Rubio helping Latin American and Caribbean countries strengthen their manufacturing capacity and helping transfer mRNa technology, which definitely the mRNa vaccines are the superior vaccines. And the U.S. Government can do so much to facilitate that technology transfer from Pfizer and Moderna. And, also, strengthening local laboratories could have a great impact for the current pandemic and also for preparedness for future pandemics, and definitely would answer a lot of your concerns regarding the lack of employment opportunities and all the factors that trigger migration to the United States. 

So definitely strengthening the local production, strengthening public health systems. And because what has happened throughout the region, in most countries–not in all–is that essential health services have been disrupted because of COVID and as they say in Latin America, ‘La COVID-disación’ of the health systems. So everything else, for example, people give birth every day and a lot of women have been unable to give birth in a good quality setting because of the way that COVID has overtaken a lot of the health services. So definitely strengthening local capacity to be able to respond better now and in the future, it’s the best thing that the United States government can do.