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Congressman Sires Chairs Subcommittee Hearing on the Trump Administration’s Response to COVID-19 in Latin America and the Caribbean

Jul 2, 2020
Press Release

(Washington, D.C.) – Yesterday, Congressman Albio Sires (D-NJ), Chairman of the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, Civilian Security, and Trade, delivered the following opening remarks at the hearing he convened on The Trump Administration’s Response to COVID-19 in Latin America and the Caribbean:

“Over the last four months, the coronavirus pandemic has devastated communities throughout the Western Hemisphere. In March and April, my home state of New Jersey was among the places hardest hit by the pandemic. While I worked around the clock to help secure personal protective equipment for our hospitals and to ensure the messages of our public health experts were reaching my constituents, as chairman of this subcommittee I also continued to watch closely what was happening in Latin America and the Caribbean. I looked on with deep sadness as families in Guayaquil searched for coffins to bury the dead. I saw desperate Venezuelans, who had fled the Maduro dictatorship, being forced to return home, as they lost their jobs and housing in neighboring countries. And I listened with great alarm on June 1st, when the World Health Organization declared that Latin America had become the new epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic.

In the face of this pandemic, which has caused such pain and suffering in this country and throughout our hemisphere, I have been reminded of how interconnected we are. The pandemic has demonstrated that the security of our neighbors has direct implications for us. My message today is that we are all in this together.

For that reason, I have deep concerns about many aspects of the Trump Administration’s response to the pandemic in Latin America and the Caribbean. During my fourteen years in Congress, across Democratic and Republican administrations, I have consistently advocated for the United States to deepen our engagement with Latin America and the Caribbean. I believe in America’s capacity to lead in this hemisphere and I have never hesitated to criticize the executive branch, including those in my own party, when it fails to engage with our neighbors on the basis of shared interests and mutual respect.

I am grateful to Ambassador Kozak and Mr. Hodges for testifying before us today. I know they are here representing thousands of hard-working public servants in the State Department and USAID who have done heroic work during these challenging times. I want to take particular note of those individuals who worked to repatriate thousands of Americans at the beginning of the pandemic, including dozens of my constituents. We are deeply grateful for your service.

That said, this pandemic has laid bare the costs of President Trump’s “America alone” approach to our foreign policy. In April, President Trump froze funding to the Pan-American Health Organization, which was doing life-saving work in Venezuela. This is the same organization that had worked closely with USAID a year earlier to reduce measles cases in Venezuela by over 90 percent. The President clearly decided that making a political point was more important than saving lives.

As the virus continues to spread, President Trump has insisted on deporting individuals who have tested positive for Covid-19. These deportations have undermined the public health response in Haiti, where we have invested hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to support Haiti’s hospitals and health ministry. After the U.S. deported over 100 Covid-positive individuals to Guatemala, their president said publicly that the U.S. was no longer behaving like an ally.

Unfortunately, President Trump’s disregard for public health guidance has served as a model for some leaders in the region. President Bolsonaro of Brazil followed President Trump’s lead, dismissing the coronavirus as a “little flu” and actively undermining the advice of his own public health experts. Rather than responding like the leader of one of the world’s most influential democracies, President Bolsonaro has behaved more like Nicaragua’s authoritarian leader, Daniel Ortega, who predictably went into hiding when the virus surfaced and left courageous medical workers and local civil society to take over the coronavirus response effort. The results of this approach are clear. Brazil now trails only the United States for the highest number of coronavirus deaths in the world.

Nonetheless, I have called this hearing because we know that this pandemic is not going away anytime soon. My message to the Trump Administration is to let us work with you, Democrats and Republicans, to support the region in stemming the spread of coronavirus. I urge the administration to reengage with Congress and return to the normal practice of regularly briefing members and staff, including on shared priorities like the crisis in Venezuela.

In the coming months, we must work shoulder to shoulder with countries in the region to address not just the immediate health impacts, but also the secondary effects of the pandemic, like increased poverty, unemployment, and food insecurity.

I will always advocate for stronger engagement in our hemisphere. And I look forward to working with the administration and my colleagues to ensure that Latin America and the Caribbean are prioritized in our foreign assistance and diplomatic response.