When George W. Bush and the U.S. pharmaceutical industry team up in Washington, you know it's bad news for U.S. consumers. Now they are taking their show on the road -- to Central America.
Guatemala -- with an economy the size of Bismarck, N.D., and a population poorer than any U.S. community -- seems to be the Chosen One. The Washington Post's Harold Meyerson pointed out that the U.S. trade representative has become "the sales rep for the pharmaceutical industry." The USTR, in fact, has an office, senior officer for Asia-Pacific and pharmaceutical policy, dedicated to assisting the already powerful U.S. drug industry.
Last year, the Guatemalan Congress passed legislation to allow the sale of generic drugs to give its citizens more consumer choice and to bring down the price of name-brand drugs. Consumers in Guatemala cheered them on.
Then the U.S. drug industry and its allies in the Bush administration moved in. Even though international trade law and World Trade Organization rules allow the sale of generics in member countries, the U.S. trade representative told Guatemalan leaders that there will be no Central American Free Trade Agreement unless the Guatemalan government gives the drug companies what they want. Not surprising, and against the vociferous opposition of millions of Guatemalans, the government repealed its own public health law.
This kind of strategy -- presidents named Bush teaming up with the prescription drug industry -- is not a new thing.
In 1991, President George H.W. Bush told Canadians that, unless they repealed their compulsory license law that ensured significantly lower prescription drug prices for Canadians than Americans were paying, Canada would be excluded from the North American Free Trade Agreement. Ottawa repealed its law and soon after Canada was included in the NAFTA agreement.
But this time, citizens of the victimized country took to the streets. In mid-March, 20,000 demonstrators assembled to protest the inclusion of Guatemala in the flawed CAFTA. Among their grievances? That CAFTA undercut their democratic rights and sold out their sovereignty. And that patent rules and the action of the Guatemalan legislature would limit the poor's access to life-saving medicine. The Bush-Pharmaceutical Alliance, they maintained, would make a poor country even poorer.
Police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowds after demonstrators hurled rocks and bottles at them. Many were arrested and detained. In one of the demonstrations, one protester was killed by police and many were injured.
Jessie Gruttadauria of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which operates three clinics in Honduras, said, "Poor Central Americans with AIDS will pay for CAFTA with their lives, since thousands of patients today rely on generics and CAFTA would cut off such access."
More than 150,000 protesters in 45 demonstrations in the six CAFTA countries expressed their opposition to this agreement. These demonstrators knew that CAFTA would not work for their country. They had seen that NAFTA failed Mexican workers, done little for Mexican consumers, and reduced the Mexican government's ability to deal with its national environment and health problems. And they figured that CAFTA, a dysfunctional cousin of NAFTA, could very well be worse.
Two die. Dozens are injured. Democracy is betrayed. Sovereignty is compromised.
And the drug industry wins again.
Sherrod Brown, a seven-term Democrat from Ohio, is the author of "Myths of Free Trade: Why American Trade Policy Has Failed."