Bolivia’s health minister arrested over ventilator purchases

Bolivia’s health minister arrested over ventilator purchases

President vows to investigate reports that the government overpaid for equipment

Bolivia’s health minister was arrested on Wednesday as part of an investigation into claims the government paid grossly inflated prices for ventilators to treat coronavirus patients.

Marcelo Navajas had only been in the job six weeks. His lawyer Rosario Canedo confirmed his arrest, describing it as “an infamy”.

“Are we living under the rule of law or are we living in a dictatorship and under a totalitarian government?” she asked reporters in La Paz.

Jeanine Añez, Bolivia’s interim president, ordered an investigation on Tuesday after local media reported that the government had overpaid for the ventilators.

Newspaper Página Siete said the government paid $4.7m for 170 ventilators from Spanish company GPA Innova. The contract was worth $1.2m, it said. Other media outlets said the government bought 179 ventilators and cited different prices.

Ms Añez said she would bring those responsible to justice and vowed to ensure that “every cent that has been stolen will be returned”.

However, on Wednesday she tweeted that the contract was actually for $4.8m and the government had paid just over $2m of it.

“I have ordered that we shouldn’t pay one cent more,” she said. “We will continue investigating.” She did not say when the contract was signed.

Mr Navajas was appointed health minister on April 8 after his predecessor, Aníbal Cruz, stepped down for personal reasons just weeks after the pandemic hit Latin America. Mr Cruz had been in the job five months.

Bolivia has registered fewer than 5,000 cases of the virus and 189 deaths, well below the Latin American average, although testing has been sporadic in what is one of the region’s poorest nations.

Ms Añez has taken a tough approach to the pandemic, imposing a lockdown in March when there were just 24 cases.

The rightwing former senator has been Bolivia’s interim president since late last year, when long-term leader Evo Morales fled the country amid allegations of electoral fraud.

She has said she will run for the presidency in elections that were due to be held this month but have been postponed due to the health crisis.

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