Latin American nations seek more time to join WHO vaccine plan

By Anthony Boadle

BRASILIA (Reuters) – Several Latin American countries have informed the World Health Organization (WHO) they intend to request more time to sign up for its global COVID-19 vaccine allocation plan known as COVAX, an official at the WHO’s regional branch said on Thursday.

Countries have until midnight on Friday to formalize legally binding commitments to COVAX, a mechanism for pooled procurement and equitable distribution of eventual vaccines.

A representative for the GAVI Alliance, the COVAX secretariat, said by email that details of which nations have joined COVAX will only be made public after the deadline.

Health officials in Mexico, which has the worst outbreak in Latin America after Brazil, said their country would sign the commitment on time. Brazil, which has the world’s most severe outbreak outside the United States and India, was still studying what to do, a ministry spokesperson said.

More than 170 countries have joined the global vaccine plan to help buy and distribute immunization shots for COVID-19 fairly around the world, WHO’s director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Thursday.

Jarbas Barbosa, assistant director of the Pan-American Health Organization, said in a briefing on Wednesday that Latin American countries were having trouble meeting the deadline and some wanted to push back the date.

Barbosa said all countries in the Americas except the United States had expressed interest in the vaccine facility, even those that have separate agreements with vaccine makers, because it gives them an added guarantee of access to doses.

Ten Latin American countries are among 90 poor nations in the world that will not have to pay for the vaccine, while the others in the region will pay an “accessible” price through COVAX, Barbosa said.

Colombian President Ivan Duque confirmed on Wednesday that his government was joining COVAX and Paraguay’s health ministry said it has already signed, even as it plans to buy the vaccine being developed by AstraZeneca PLC and Oxford University.

(Reporting by Anthony Boadle in Brasilia, Diego Ore in Mexico City, Julia Cobb in Bogotá, Daniela Desantis in Asunción; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Chizu Nomiyama)

What you need to know about the coronavirus right now

(Reuters) – Here’s what you need to know about the coronavirus right now:

Restrictions reimposed across Asia-Pacific region

From Melbourne to Manila, Hong Kong and India’s tech capital Bengaluru, lockdowns and strict social distancing restrictions are being reimposed across the Asia-Pacific after a surge in new coronavirus cases fanned fears of a second wave of infections.

Many parts of Asia, the region first hit by the coronavirus that emerged in central China late last year, are finding cause to pause the reopening of their economies, some after winning praise for their initial responses to the outbreak.

The number of coronavirus infections around the world hit 13 million on Monday, according to a Reuters tally, climbing by a million in just five days. Reuters’ global tally, which is based on government reports, shows COVID-19 accelerating fastest in Latin America, the number of deaths there exceeding the figure for North America for the first time on Monday.

Shutdown in California

California’s governor on Monday clamped new restrictions on businesses as coronavirus cases and hospitalizations soared, and the state’s two largest school districts, in Los Angeles and San Diego, said children would be made to stay home in August.

Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, ordered bars closed and restaurants, movie theaters, zoos and museums across the nation’s most populous state to cease indoor operations. Gyms, churches and hair salons must close in the 30 hardest-hit counties.

“It’s incumbent upon all of us to recognize soberly that COVID-19 is not going away any time soon, until there is a vaccine and/or an effective therapy,” Newsom said at a news briefing.

The decision to cancel in-person classes puts the districts at odds with U.S. President Donald Trump, who has said he might withhold federal funding or remove tax-exempt status from school systems that refuse to reopen.

‘Worst-case’ winter toll

Britain faces a potentially more deadly second wave of COVID-19 in the coming winter that could kill up to 120,000 people over nine months in a worst-case scenario, health experts said on Tuesday.

With COVID-19 more likely to spread in winter as people spend more time together in enclosed spaces, a second wave of the pandemic “could be more serious than the one we’ve just been through,” said Stephen Holgate, a professor and co-lead author of a report by Britain’s Academy of Medical Sciences.

“This is not a prediction, but it is a possibility,” Holgate told an online briefing. “Deaths could be higher with a new wave of COVID-19 this winter, but the risk of this happening could be reduced if we take action immediately.”

The United Kingdom’s current death toll from confirmed cases of COVID-19 is around 45,000, the highest in Europe.

Good news from hard-hit Belgium

Belgium, which has reined in the coronavirus after becoming the worst-hit mid-sized country in the world, reported zero new coronavirus-related deaths in 24 hours on Tuesday for the first time since March 10.

As in many European countries that were hard-hit by the pandemic in March and April, Belgium sharply reduced infections by imposing a lockdown, which is now being lifted.

The total number of deaths reported by the national public health institute Sciensano remained at 9,787. In the country of 11.5 million people, that works out to around 850 deaths per million, the worst in the world apart from the tiny city state of San Marino. The peak daily death toll was 343 on April 12.

Bastille Day with a difference

France held a scaled-down annual Bastille Day celebration on Tuesday, with none of the usual tanks and troops parading down Paris’s Champs Elysees avenue, in a concession to the COVID-19 epidemic still stalking Europe.

Instead, President Emmanuel Macron, standing in the back of a military jeep, reviewed ranks of socially-distanced troops on the Place de la Concorde square after a flypast by military aircraft.

“I wish, with all the French, with the armies themselves, to pay a vibrant tribute to health workers and those who, in all sectors, have enabled public, social and economic life to continue,” Macron said in message released ahead of the parade.

(Compiled by Linda Noakes and Karishma Singh; editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise)

Global coronavirus cases rise above 13 million

By Gayle Issa

(Reuters) – Global coronavirus infections passed 13 million on Monday, according to a Reuters tally, marking another milestone in the spread of the disease which has killed more than half a million people in seven months.

The first case was reported in China in early January and it took three months to reach one million cases. It has taken just five days to climb to 13 million cases from 12 million recorded on July 8.

The number of cases is around triple that of severe influenza illnesses recorded annually, according to the World Health Organization.

There have been more than 568,500 deaths linked to the coronavirus so far, within the same range as the number of yearly influenza deaths reported worldwide. The first death was reported on Jan. 10 in Wuhan, China, before infections and fatalities surged in Europe and then later in the United States.

Many hard-hit countries are easing lockdowns put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19. Other places, such as the Australian city of Melbourne, are implementing a second round of shutdowns.

The Reuters tally, which is based on government reports, shows the disease is accelerating the fastest in Latin America. The Americas account for more than half the world’s infections and half the deaths.

The United States reported a daily global record of 69,070 new infections on July 10. In, 1.86 million people have tested positive, including President Jair Bolsonaro, and more than 72,000 people have died.

India, the country with the third-highest number of infections, has been contending with an average of 23,000 new infections each day since the beginning of July.

In countries with limited testing capacity, case numbers reflect only a proportion of total infections. Experts say official data likely under-represents both infections and deaths.

(Reporting by Gayle Issa; Editing by Frances Kerry, Nick Macfie and Toby Chopra)

Global coronavirus deaths top half a million

By Jane Wardell and Cate Cadell

SYDNEY/BEIJING (Reuters) – The death toll from COVID-19 surpassed half a million people on Sunday, according to a Reuters tally, a grim milestone for the global pandemic that seems to be resurgent in some countries even as other regions are still grappling with the first wave.

The respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus has been particularly dangerous for the elderly, although other adults and children are also among the 501,000 fatalities and 10.1 million reported cases.

While the overall rate of death has flattened in recent weeks, health experts have expressed concerns about record numbers of new cases in countries like the United States, India and Brazil, as well as new outbreaks in parts of Asia.

More than 4,700 people are dying every 24 hours from COVID-19-linked illness, according to Reuters calculations based on an average from June 1 to 27.

That equates to 196 people per hour, or one person every 18 seconds.

About one-quarter of all the deaths so far have been in the United States, the Reuters data shows. The recent surge in cases has been most pronounced in a handful of Southern and Western states that reopened earlier and more aggressively. U.S. officials on Sunday reported around 44,700 new cases and 508 additional deaths.

Case numbers are also growing swiftly in Latin America, on Sunday surpassing those diagnosed in Europe, making the region the second most affected by the pandemic, after North America.

On the other side of the world, Australian officials were considering reimposing social distancing measures in some regions on Monday after reporting the biggest one-day rise in infections in more than two months.

The first recorded death from the new virus was on Jan. 9, a 61-year-old man from the Chinese city of Wuhan who was a regular shopper at a wet market that has been identified as the source of the outbreak.

In just five months, the COVID-19 death toll has overtaken the number of people who die annually from malaria, one of the most deadly infectious diseases.

The death rate averages out to 78,000 per month, compared with 64,000 AIDS-related deaths and 36,000 malaria deaths, according to 2018 figures from the World Health Organization.

CHANGING BURIAL RITES

The high number of deaths has led to changes to traditional and religious burial rites around the world, with morgues and funeral businesses overwhelmed and loved ones often barred from bidding farewell in person.

In Israel, the custom of washing the bodies of Muslim deceased is not permitted, and instead of being shrouded in cloth, they must be wrapped in a plastic body bag. The Jewish tradition of Shiva where people go to the home of mourning relatives for seven days has also been disrupted.

In Italy, Catholics have been buried without funerals or a blessing from a priest. In New York, city crematories were at one point working overtime, burning bodies into the night as officials scouted for temporary interment sites.

In Iraq, former militiamen have dropped their guns to instead dig graves for coronavirus victims at a specially created cemetery. They have learned how to conduct Christian, as well as Muslim, burials.

ELDERLY AT RISK

Public health experts are looking at how demographics affect the death rates in different regions. Some European countries with older populations have reported higher fatality rates, for instance.

An April report by the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control looked at more than 300,000 cases in 20 countries and found that about 46% of all fatalities were over the age of 80.

In Indonesia, hundreds of children are believed to have died, a development health officials have attributed to malnutrition, anemia and inadequate child health facilities.

Health experts caution that the official data likely does not tell the full story, with many believing that both cases and deaths have likely been under reported in some countries.

(Reporting by Jane Wardell in Sydney and Cate Cadell in Beijing; Editing by Tiffany Wu and Daniel Wallis)

Global coronavirus cases surpass 5 million, infections rising in South America

By Lisa Shumaker and Cate Cadell

(Reuters) – Global coronavirus cases surpassed 5 million on Wednesday, with Latin America overtaking the United States and Europe in the past week to report the largest portion of new daily cases globally.

It represents a new phase in the virus’ spread, which initially peaked in China in February before large-scale outbreaks followed in Europe and the United States.

Latin America accounted for around a third of the 91,000 cases reported earlier this week. Europe and the United States each accounted for just over 20%.

A large number of those new cases came from Brazil, which recently surpassed Germany, France and the United Kingdom to become the third-largest outbreak in the world, behind the United States and Russia.

Cases in Brazil are now rising at a daily pace second only to the United States.

The first 41 cases of coronavirus were confirmed in Wuhan, China, on Jan. 10 and it took the world until April 1 to reach its first million cases. Since then, about 1 million new cases are reported every two weeks, according to a Reuters tally.

At more than 5 million cases, the virus has infected more people in under six months than the annual total of severe flu cases, which the World Health Organization estimates is around 3 million to 5 million globally.

The pandemic has claimed over 326,000 lives, though the true number is thought to be higher as testing is still limited and many countries do not include fatalities outside of hospitals. Over half of the total fatalities have been recorded in Europe.

Despite the continued increase in cases, many countries are opening schools and workplaces following weeks of lockdown that have stemmed the spread.

Financial markets have also been boosted slightly by promising early results from the first U.S. vaccine trial in humans.

(Reporting by Lisa Shumaker and Cate Cadell; editing by Jane Wardell)

‘Dengue kills too’ – Latin America faces two epidemics at once

By Oliver Griffin

BOGOTA (Reuters) – As the coronavirus kills thousands and dominates government attention across Latin America, another deadly viral infection is quietly stalking the region.

Dengue – colloquially called breakbone fever for the severe joint pain it causes – is endemic in much of Latin America, but COVID-19’s arrival has pulled crucial attention and resources away from the fight against it, doctors and officials say.

The Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) expects 2020 to be marked by high rates of dengue, which can fill intensive care units and kill patients even absent the pressures of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Around the world, COVID-19 has affected other diseases in different ways. Though in Europe measures to stop the coronavirus have banished seasonal flu, in Africa border closures have stopped transportation of measles vaccines and other supplies.

In Latin America, a dengue epidemic that started in late 2018 is still being felt. Dengue infections in the Americas surged to an all-time high of 3.1 million in 2019, with over 1,500 deaths in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to the PAHO.

Cases of the disease should begin to decline in the second half of the year, the organization said.

Spread by mosquitoes, dengue outbreaks typically occur three to five years after the previous epidemic.

And with four strains of dengue in circulation, people may catch it more than once, with second cases more likely to be severe.

“COVID is the star right now, so all of the attention is being put on COVID, but there are still problems with dengue,” said Doctor Jaime Gomez, who works at a hospital in Floridablanca, in Colombia’s Santander province.

Although dengue is not usually fatal and can be treated with painkillers, some sufferers deal with persistent symptoms like fatigue, weight loss, and depression that affect their ability to work. Severe dengue is treated with intravenous fluids and those who do not get tested are at risk of dangerous complications.

Such medical intervention cannot be given if patients stay home, worried about contracting the coronavirus, or if overcrowded hospitals have to turn them away.

With relatively few cases of COVID-19 in the province where he works, Gomez said his clinic had seen hospitalizations fall by half, as people were fearful of venturing outdoors.

‘SYSTEM HAS COLLAPSED’

Paraguayan lawyer Sonia Fernandez avoided seeking care when she and her two daughters, ages 11 and 8, got sick with dengue at the beginning of April.

“All three of us had dengue, we had all the symptoms, the pain, the rash, but we didn’t go to a clinic or a health center so as not to expose ourselves (to COVID-19),” Fernandez said.

All three have since recovered.

Dengue cases in Paraguay have exploded this year. In the first 18 weeks of 2020, the country reported 42,710 confirmed cases and 64 deaths, compared to 384 confirmed cases and six deaths in the year-earlier period.

In Ecuador, where the coronavirus outbreak has hit hard and hospitals in the largest city of Guayaquil been overwhelmed, an apparent fall in the number of dengue cases could mask other issues.

According to Ecuador’s health ministry, dengue cases peaked at 888 in the week ending March 14, two weeks after the country confirmed its first case of COVID-19. For the week of April 4, they fell to 257.

“Very clearly dengue is being under-reported,” said Esteban Ortiz, global health researcher at Quito’s University of the Americas.

“Cases haven’t decreased, the diagnosis of cases has decreased, which confirms the system has totally collapsed,” he added.

Ecuador’s health ministry said in a statement that the country was no more exposed to the double impact of COVID-19 and dengue than any other in the region, adding it has sufficient supplies to treat cases of the mosquito-borne disease.

Dengue has also spiked sharply in Central America. Cases in Costa Rica nearly tripled through May 1 compared with a year ago, to over 2,000.

“We are going through a difficult moment dealing with COVID-19 but unfortunately other diseases continue their cycle,” Rodrigo Marin, director of Costa Rica’s health surveillance agency, recently told journalists.

In Panama, where dengue has caused at least two deaths this year, Panama City health official Yamileth Lopez also sounded the alarm in an interview with Reuters.

“Dengue kills too,” she said.

(Reporting by Oliver Griffin; additional reporting by Daniela Desantis in Asuncion, Alexandra Valencia in Quito, Alvaro Murillo in San Jose and Elida Moreno in Panama City; Editing by Julia Symmes Cobb and Rosalba O’Brien)

U.S. dream pulls African migrants in record numbers across Latin America

FILE PHOTO: A migrant from Cameroon holds his baby while trying to enter the Siglo XXI immigrant detention center to request humanitarian visas, issued by the Mexican government, to cross the country towards the United States, in Tapachula, Mexico June 27, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Torres/File Photo

By Daina Beth Solomon

TAPACHULA, Mexico (Reuters) – Marilyne Tatang, 23, crossed nine borders in two months to reach Mexico from the West African nation of Cameroon, fleeing political violence after police torched her house, she said.

She plans to soon take a bus north for four days and then cross a tenth border, into the United States. She is not alone – a record number of fellow Africans are flying to South America and then traversing thousands of miles of highway and a treacherous tropical rainforest to reach the United States.

Tatang, who is eight months pregnant, took a raft across a river into Mexico on June 8, a day after Mexico struck a deal with U.S. President Donald Trump to do more to control the biggest flows of migrants heading north to the U.S. border in more than a decade.

The migrants vying for entry at the U.S. southern border are mainly Central Americans. But growing numbers from a handful of African countries are joining them, prompting calls from Trump and Mexico for other countries in Latin America to do their part to slow the overall flood of migrants.

As more Africans learn from relatives and friends who have made the trip that crossing Latin America to the United States is tough but not impossible, more are making the journey, and in turn are helping others follow in their footsteps, migration experts say.

Trump’s threats to clamp down on migrants have ricocheted around the globe, paradoxically spurring some to exploit what they see as a narrowing window of opportunity, said Michelle Mittelstadt, communications director for the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

“This message is being heard not just in Central America, but in other parts of the world,” she said.

Data from Mexico’s interior ministry suggests that migration from Africa this year will break records.

The number of Africans registered by Mexican authorities tripled in the first four months of 2019 compared with the same period a year ago, reaching about 1,900 people, mostly from Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which remains deeply unstable years after the end of a bloody regional conflict with its neighbors that led to the deaths of millions of people.

‘THEY WOULD HAVE KILLED ME’

Tatang, a grade school teacher, said she left northwest Cameroon due to worsening violence in the English-speaking region, where separatists are battling the mostly French-speaking government for autonomy.

“It was so bad that they burned the house where I was living … they would have killed me,” she said, referring to government forces who tried to capture her.

At first, Tatang planned only to cross the border into Nigeria. Then she heard that some people had made it to the United States.

“Someone would say, ‘You can do this,'” she said. ‘So I asked if it was possible for someone like me too, because I’m pregnant. They said, ‘Do this, do that.'”

Tatang begged her family for money for the journey, which she said so far has cost $5,000.

She said her route began with a flight to Ecuador, where Cameroonians don’t need visas. Tatang went by bus and on foot through Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala until reaching Mexico.

She was still deciding what to do once she got to Mexico’s northern border city of Tijuana, she said, cradling her belly while seated on a concrete bench outside migration offices in the southern Mexican city of Tapachula.

“I will just ask,” she said. “I can’t say, ‘When I get there, I will do this.’ I don’t know. I’ve never been there.”

Reuters spoke recently with five migrants in Tapachula who were from Cameroon, DRC and Angola. Several said they traveled to Brazil as a jumping-off point.

They were a small sampling of the hundreds of people – including Haitians, Cubans, Indians and Bangladeshis – clustered outside migration offices.

Political volatility in Cameroon and the DRC in recent years has displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

People from the DRC made up the third largest group of new refugees globally last year with about 123,000 people, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency, while Cameroon’s internally displaced population grew by 447,000 people.

The number of undocumented African migrants found by authorities in Mexico quadrupled compared to five years ago, reaching nearly 3,000 people in 2018.

Most obtain a visa that allows them free passage through Mexico for 20 days, after which they cross into the United States and ask for asylum.

Few choose to seek asylum in Mexico, in part because they don’t speak Spanish. Tatang said the language barrier was especially frustrating because she speaks only English, making communication difficult both with Mexican migration officials and even other Africans, such as migrants from DRC who speak primarily French.

Those who reach the United States often send advice back home, helping make the journey easier for others, said Florence Kim, spokeswoman for the International Organization for Migration in West and Central Africa.

Like their Central American migrant counterparts, some Africans are also showing up with families hoping for easier entries than as individuals, said Mittelstadt of the Migration Policy Institute.

U.S. data shows a huge spike in the number of families from countries other than Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras at the U.S. southern border. Between last October and May 16,000 members of families were registered, up from 1,000 for the whole of 2018, according to an analysis by the MPI.

REGIONAL APPROACH

The grueling Latin America trek forces migrants to spend at least a week trudging across swampland and hiking through mountainous rainforests in the lawless Darien Gap that is the only link between Panama and Colombia.

Still, the route has a key advantage: Countries in the region typically do not deport migrants from other continents due in part to the steep costs and lack of repatriation agreements with their home countries.

That relaxed attitude could change, however.

Under a deal struck with United States last month, Mexico may start a process later this month to become a safe third country, making asylum seekers apply for refuge in Mexico and not the United States.

To lessen the load on Mexico, Mexico and the United States plan to put pressure on Central American nations to do more to prevent asylum seekers, including African migrants, from moving north.

For the moment, however, more Africans can be expected to attempt the journey, said IOM’s Kim.

“They want to do something with their life. They feel they lack a future in their country,” she said.

(The story adds dropped word “they” in final paragraph.)

(Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon; Additional reporting by Paul Vieira; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel)

U.S. cracks down on transnational organized crime including Hezbollah: Sessions

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivers remarks to the Office of Justice Programs' National Institute of Justice Opioid Research Summit in Washington, U.S., September 25, 2018. REUTERS/Al Drago

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Monday said he had designated five groups, including Hezbollah and MS-13, as transnational criminal organizations to target with tougher investigations and prosecutions.

Sessions also said he had designated the Sinaloa Cartel, Clan de Golfo and Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion for the crack down to be carried out by a special new task force.

A special team of “experienced international narcotics trafficking, terrorism, organized crime, and money laundering prosecutors” will investigate individuals and networks providing support to Hezbollah, Sessions said

Mostly active in Lebanon, Hezbollah was an outlier on the Attorney General’s list, which was otherwise focused on groups with ties to Latin America.

“With this new task force in place, our efforts will be more targeted and more effective than ever,” Sessions said, explaining that in 90 days task-force members will give him specific recommendations “to prosecute these groups and ultimately take them off of our streets.”

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Writing by Lisa Lambert; Editing by Susan Thomas)

With Syria in focus, Trump cancels trip to Latin America

U.S. President Donald Trump receives a briefing from senior military leadership at the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, DC, U.S. April 9, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump has decided to cancel his first official trip to Latin America this week to focus on responding to a suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria, the White House said on Tuesday.

Trump had been scheduled to travel to Lima, Peru, on Friday to attend the Summit of the Americas and then travel on to Bogota, Colombia. The trip had been expected to be tense and awkward because of Trump’s repeated disparagement of the region over immigration, narcotics and trade.

His travel plans changed after a Saturday night attack on the Syrian town of Douma which killed at least 60 people and injured more than 1,000 others. Trump has vowed to make a swift decision to respond to what he called “atrocities.”

“At the president’s request, the vice president will travel in his stead. The president will remain in the United States to oversee the American response to Syria and to monitor developments around the world,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement.

Last year, Washington bombed a Syrian government air base after a chemical weapons attack. It was not yet clear what decision Trump will make in response to the latest attack. Syria and Russia have denied there was a chemical weapons attack and have proposed international inspections.

This will be the second trip to the region for Vice President Mike Pence. He met with leaders in Colombia, Argentina and Panama in August.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

Venezuela’s Maduro threatens to gatecrash regional summit

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro gestures as he talks to the media during a news conference in Caracas, Venezuela February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s unpopular socialist president Nicolas Maduro said on Thursday his right-wing Latin American counterparts showed intolerance by trying to exclude him from an upcoming summit in Lima and he vowed to go anyway.

Peru’s center-right government this week said Maduro would not be welcome at the Summit of the Americas in April, reinforcing his growing diplomatic isolation during a crackdown on dissent and a brutal economic crisis in Venezuela.

“Do you fear me? You don’t want to see me in Lima? You’re going to see me. Because come rain or shine, by air, land, or sea, I will attend the Summit of the Americas,” Maduro said during a press conference with foreign journalists.

Maduro also said Argentina’s center-right president Mauricio Macri should call a meeting of the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) group of Latin American nations with him.

“Call a meeting, dare, don’t be scared of me, President Macri,” said Maduro. “If you want to talk about Venezuela, let’s talk about Venezuela.”

Government critics say Maduro for years has refused to listen to advice that he should reform Venezuela’s crumbling economy that has spawned shortages, hyperinflation, malnutrition, and the return of once-controlled diseases. They also say he refuses to acknowledge the extent of Venezuela’s humanitarian suffering, so it is futile to meet with him.

He says right-wing regional governments are part of U.S.-led international conspiracy to topple him and take control of the OPEC member’s oil resources.

“They’re the most unpopular governments on the planet,” he said, naming Argentina, Colombia and Peru.

(Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Andrew Hay)