This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Sen. Orrin Hatch has hit a new low in his unabashed support of Big Pharma. Not content with putting the financial interests of pharmaceutical companies over the health of the American people, he is now actively blackmailing Colombia, the closest strategic ally of the United States in Latin America.
Hatch's office has threatened the South American country's government with withholding funding for its peace process unless it gives up on its right to regulate the price of cancer drugs and other medications. The Colombian peace process is a foreign policy priority of the United States, and the American people should not allow special interests to sabotage it.
Hatch owes his re-election to $750,000 from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA). They had every reason to help. He has helped extend the monopoly rights of drug companies, he has repeatedly thrown wrenches at provisions designed to allow competition from generic drugs and he has allowed the nutritional supplement industry to make baseless health claims without legal sanctions. The industry has always been thankful for his good offices. During his brief 2000 presidential campaign he flew on a Gulfstream executive jet courtesy of Schering-Plough Corp., and his son is a well-paid lobbyist at a firm representing PhRMA and GlaxoSmithKline.
Given his record, it was outrageous but not surprising when El Espectador, a leading Colombian daily, reported that the country's embassy in Washington, D.C., had sent an urgent letter to Bogota. The letter stated that Hatch's office had warned the embassy of how the Colombian dispute with the pharmaceutical company Novartis over the pricing of its cancer-fighting drug Gleevec could "make the relevant interest groups become very vocal and interfere with other interests that Colombia has in the United States."
The Colombian interests he was referring to were Paz Colombia, the multi-million-dollar aid package destined to help the country transition from decades of war against Marxist guerrillas into a peaceful and prosperous society. The warnings must have sounded serious enough. The embassy proceeded to advise the Ministry of Health that it might want to reconsider allowing local manufacturers to produce a generic version of Gleevec. The decision, which is in full compliance with WTO rules, had been recently announced in view of Novartis' refusal to charge a reasonable price for the drug.
More than 200,000 people have died in the Colombian civil conflict, and peace negotiations have yet to be concluded. Even after an agreement is signed, it will be fragile for years to come. Unless Colombia solves the issues that gave rise to the conflict income and land inequality, as well as the systematic disenfranchisement of political minorities under the auspices of the U.S. government the war can start anew. The Obama administration has taken the right step by pledging $450 million to fund the guerrilla demobilization program, rid the country of land mines and help coca farmers transition to the production of legal crops.
Threatening to make Paz Colombia conditional on the outcome of the dispute between Novartis and the Colombian Ministry of Health is foolish. It stems from the kind of boundless greed that many Latin Americans suspect always motivates U.S. foreign policy.
Prove them wrong. The values of the people of the United States are not such that they would put the profits of corporations over the lives of their neighbors. However, Washington has historically given Latin America plenty of reasons to think otherwise. Fortunately, there is still time to do the right thing and demand that Hatch support Paz Colombia without reservations.
Luis Carlos Reyes, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of economics at the Universidad Javeriana in Bogota, Colombia.