U.S.’s Newest IP Gunship Diplomacy in Colombia – Same Threats with Dollars not Bullets

It used to be that when the U.S. wanted to exert its influence or extend the imperial power of its businesses in Latin America, it would resort to gunships. In the old days, the raw use of naked armed power needed little justification. In the more modern era of proxy wars, the U.S. Is more likely to send money and arms, as it has done consistently with Colombia for its War on Drugs. The latest tranche of funding for Colombia, designed to enable peace talks – if you will, a cease-fire in the War on Drugs – is the $450 million Paz Colombia proposal before Congress.

One would think that the rationale for a peace process in Colombia that might dampen the flow of illegal drugs to the U.S. is strong and that funding for this effort can be ring fenced and justified on its own account. But not in the world of topsy turvy politics in Washington where the special interests of Big Pharma trump even priority peace initiatives. Why is Pharma involved in Paz Colombia and why has the U.S. manned the battle stations? Because Colombia has deigned to discuss issuing a compulsory license to stop being robbed by a Swiss pharmaceutical company, Novartis, on the cost of a highly effective, but grossly overpriced leukemia medicine, Gleveec.

This is how lobbying and gunship diplomacy work in tandem on Pharma’s behalf.

  • Novartis, even though a foreign company, contacts its proxy in the U.S., the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. Novartis says, “Our monopoly pricing is being threatened in Colombia, and you should be concerned because it could happen to your membership too.” PhRMA in turn contacts the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to line up support from other IP-intensive industry groups.
  • PhRMA and Chamber of Commerce lobbyists march with briefcases to the Office of the United States Trade Representative for years where they have totally captured its trade agenda (more pharma lobbyists for the USTR than for the Food and Drug Administration). The USTR consistently pursues stronger and longer IP monopolies and greater IP enforcement policies even as it simultaneously threatens and pressures any country that does not accept Big Pharma’s monopoly control. It jumps into action for Novartis.
  • PhRMA and the Chamber of Congress also contribute campaign funds to key Members of Congress, most especially chairs of key committees, like Orin Hatch who heads up the Senate Finance Committee. When Colombia threatens to issue a compulsory license to allow generic versions of Novartis’s medicines, PhRMA lobbyists go straight to the top and ask Senator Hatch to appoint one of his key staffers to put pressure on Colombia.
  • The USTR and the Congressional staffer, in this case Everett Eissenstat, both goes to the Colombia’s embassy in Washington and make identical threats:  (1) our unhappy PhRMA and Chamber of Congress will threaten Paz Colombia funding if Colombia does not drop its compulsory licensing threat and (2) trade retaliation threats from the U.S. will escalate and you may be blocked from entering other regional trade deals with the U.S., including the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.
  • The Colombia embassy in Washington contacts Colombia officials in Bogota, warning that Colombia should stand down from its threatened compulsory license and continue to allow Novartis to charge whatever it wants.
  • (In the future, Senator Hatch gets more PhRMA donations and members of his staff and former USTR officials become highly paid industry lobbyists.)

In this world of Big Pharma acting as the puppeteer and ordering U.S. officials to do its bidding with escalating threats of economic and trade reprisals, it doesn’t matter that it is completely lawful under international law, Colombia’s trade agreement with the U.S., and its own national law that Colombia might issue a compulsory license. That right is enshrined in the WTO Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, in the 2001 Doha Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health, and in the U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Authority Agreement. The argument of the USTR and Mr. Eissenstat that there needs to be special justifications for issuing a compulsory license is totally false – and they know it.

These backdoor pressures and economic threats are just as dangerous as gunships sitting in a harbor. And they can be just a deadly – cannon balls blow up people, but lack of access to affordable life-saving medicines commits people with cancer to needlessly short lives of suffering and misery as well.

–Prof. Brook K. Baker, Senior Policy Analyst, Health GAP