Is This The Return Of U.S. ‘Gunboat Diplomacy’ Serving Corporations?

Dave Johnson

Colombia is allowing local production of a generic form of a cancer drug that is ultraexpensive because of a government-granted monopoly handed to a giant, multinational pharmaceutical corporation. The U.S. government is stepping in on the corporation’s side with a modern form of “gunboat diplomacy” — even though the giant corporation isn’t even “American.”

In November 2014, a group of public health advocacy organizations called on the Colombian government to declare that the public interest warrants that the country can produce a generic version of the ultraexpensive cancer drug Gleevec, produced by the “Swiss” giant Novartis. According to a March, 2015 report in Intellectual Property Watch, “Colombia Asked To Declare Excessive Price For Cancer Drug Contrary To Public Interest, Grounds For Compulsory License“:

The evidence supporting a declaration of public interest is self-evident: imatinib [the generic name for Gleevec] is unquestionably effective as a leukemia drug, and was placed on the WHO’s Essential Medicines List in 2015. It is also unquestionably expensive for Colombia, costing $15,161 U.S.D per patient per year — nearly double the country’s GNI per capita of $7,970 U.S.D (Atlas Method) in 2014 — for a drug that is taken as a chronic treatment, not as a cure.

The World Health Organization has declared Gleevec as an “essential drug.” A year’s supply of Gleevec costs twice the national income per capita. The extraordinarily high monopoly pricing of this drug creates a health emergency in Colombia. The World Trade Organization rules allow countries to do this in the case of health emergencies.

This year the Colombian government agreed to do this, issuing a “compulsory license” enabling local production of a generic form of the drug.

Colombia Threatened

There are indications that right after Colombia enabled local production of a generic version of Gleevec, the U.S. government stepped in to protect pharmaceutical industry profits by threatening to withdraw funding for a peace initiative between the Colombian government and the rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and threatening the country’s involvement in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Zach Carter writes at The Huffington Post about what happened, in “Colombia Fears U.S. May Reject Peace Plan To Protect Pharma Profits,”

The Colombian Embassy is concerned that lowering the price of a major cancer drug may jeopardize American funding for peace talks in the South American nation, according to a leaked embassy memo.

In February, President Barack Obama committed $450 million to aid peace talks between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a Marxist rebel group known as FARC. The money would help the Colombian government fight the illegal drug trade and retrain FARC members.

But in an April 27 memo, Colombian diplomat Andrés Flórez said he was worried the U.S. would withhold peace funding if the Colombian government lowered prices on the drug Gleevec, also sold as Glivec. The memo was first posted by the think tank Knowledge Ecology International.

The key phrase in the leaked memo:

“Given the direct link that exists between a significant group of members of Congress and the pharmaceutical industry in the United States, the case of GLIVEC is susceptible to escalate to the point that it could impair the approval of the financing of the new initiative “Paz Colombia” as well as become an issue in the framework of the free-trade treaty.”

That was a translation from Spanish to English. Here is a translation of the translation: The “direct link” referred to here is millions of dollars to key members of Congress from the pharmaceutical industry and pharmaceutical lobbying jobs for some of their families. The “Paz Colombia” is the peace process with FARC. The “framework of the free-trade treaty” is the threat about TPP participation.

Friday’s Politico Morning Trade also reports on this, with a second letter the day after the one above, which said,

“Mr. Eissenstat also mentioned that if the Ministry of Health did not correct this situation, the pharmaceutical industry in the United States and related interest groups could become very vocal and interfere with other interests that Colombia could have in the United States,” said the letter, which was obtained by the nonprofit Knowledge Economy International.

Gunboat Diplomacy, United Fruit, Henry Kissinger

The term “Gunboat Diplomacy” refers to a 19th- and early 20th-century practice of countries sending warships to threaten and intimidate smaller countries.

United Fruit was an American company that controlled land in Central and South America and had a near or complete monopoly on fruit-growing and distribution in the regions. The term “Banana Republic” comes from the way the company and other corporate interests like ITT would join with the U.S. government to enforce plutocratically controlled government against popular democratic uprisings and elections in the region.

Coincident with the threats against Colombia, the Obama administration invited Henry Kissinger to the Pentagon where Defense Secretary Ash Carter awarded him the Distinguished Public Service Award. The Nation has the story:

Kissinger, Carter said, “demonstrated how serious thinking and perspective can deliver solutions to seemingly intractable problems.” As to allegations of war crimes, “the fact is,” said Kissinger, he and Richard Nixon “were engaged in good causes.”

Just one example (of many) of a “solution” Kissinger (in support of and with help from then-giant corporation ITT) engineered was the 1973 overthrow of the government of Chile, installing Augusto Pinochet, who killed or “disappeared” between 10,000 and 30,000 Chileans for the crime of supporting democracy and unions. Defending Kissinger for this, his biographer refers to a different gunboat diplomacy action in another banana republic, Guatemala:

Even his authorized biographer, Niall Ferguson, doesn’t deny that Kissinger is a criminal but rather mitigates the crimes by comparing them to other crimes: “Nearly a hundred times as many people,” Ferguson writes, “died” as a result of John Foster Dulles’s actions in Guatemala as “were ‘disappeared’ in Chile” after the 1973 coup vigorously encouraged by Kissinger, yet “you will search the libraries in vain for The Trial of John Foster Dulles” (Ferguson apparently hasn’t yet read the books by David Talbot and Stephen Kinzer).

Has the “Swiss” firm Novartis becomes the 21st-century version of United Fruit and ITT? At least they were “American” companies. This time the U.S. appears to be engaging in gunboat diplomacy in support of multinational corporations in general.

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