Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Joe Biden Looks Out for Colombia

U.S. VP Joe Biden - looking out for Colombia?
Air pollution in Colombia? The United States government is against it!

Cheap ethanol fuel for Colombia? The U.S. government is all for that one.

But as far as inexpensive generic medicines go - well, they could threaten Colombians' health.

Those are some of the messages in a recent letter from U.S. Vice President Joe Biden to Colombian Pres. Juan Manuel Santos. The U.S. government's concern for Colombians' health and well-being would be much more moving if the sentiments weren't also in the U.S.'s economic interests, as well as Washington's interpretation of U.S.-Colombian free trade agreements.

Biden wants old dirty trucks junked, to open
the borders to truck imports from the States.
Biden may very well stay up nights worrying about the damaging effects of diesel particles on chatarrización, or junking, of one old truck for each truck imported into the country. Predictably, Colombia has not been forcing truck companies to junk those old, polluting vehicles, something which would cut into the companies' profits. That creates obstacles to legally importing new trucks, most of which come from the U.S.
Colombians' lungs. But it also just so happens that Colombian law also puts roadblocks in the way of U.S. truck exports to Colombia. Colombian law requires the

From the press accounts about Biden's letter (I haven't been able to find the original online), it's not clear whether Biden wants Colombia to junk the truck-junking law as an obstacle to free trade, or whether he wants Colombia to actually carry it out in order to open the gates to more truck imports.

A mural in the Universidad Nacional in Bogotá shows a fat American eating Colombia's industries and benefits.
The cynic in me asks whether this law in any of its forms will actually clean Colombia's air. Will companies really junk their old, polluting trucks, or just throw out the shells and keep the dirty engines on the road? For how long will newly imported trucks run clean in a nation which doesn't enforce emissions laws?

Sugar cane harvesting. Cane ethanol is much more
environmentally sound than U.S. corn ethanol.
As for ethanol, Biden doesn't like the Colombian law which prohibits ethanol imports as long as Colombian ethanol production could supply the country's needs. That, after all, sounds a bit like a violation of free trade.

A charitable view would be that Biden worries about Colombia's ethanol supply out of concerns about health and the environment. (Ethanol, made from organic materials,is mixed into gasoline to supposedly reduce pollution and greenhouse gases.) But ethanol's pollution impacts are questionable - mixed into gasoline it reduces particulate production and carbon monoxide pollution, but in smoggy cities it can increase harmful ozone pollution.

Regarding global warming gases, ethanol's impacts are probably less positive. Researchers debate
Generic medicines are much cheaper -
and less profitable for corporations.
whether the sugar cane ethanol produced in Colombia and Brazil generates less carbon dioxide than does regular gasoline. But it does seem clear that corn-based ethanol isn't economically viable and produces more carbon dioxide than would burning plain old gasoline. But making ethanol from corn is politically profitable in the U.S., where presidential campaigns pass thru Iowa. That's why the U.S. wants to export its subsidized corn products to Colombia - even tho that loses the U.S. money and could drive Colombian small farmers into bankruptcy. (Of course, it's also true that this cheap corn saves Colombian consumers money. But I suspect that this cheap imported corn goes into junk food products, rather than healthy foods.)

Finally, Biden doesn't approve of Colombia's plans to accelerate approval of some 'bio-similar' versions of 'biotechnological' medicines, which are created from living tissues, after the original medicines' patents have expired. Such plans infuriate big pharmaceutical companies, many of which are based in the U.S. and charge high prices for the original medicines.

While it is certainly true that companies have a right to recover their research and marketing investments, and that pharmaceutical companies lose some income to generic substitutes of their products, it's also true that expensive medicines are out of the reach of most Colombians, and that these medicines' costs are bankrupting Colombia's healthcare system.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours


Vocabat said...

This post and information really make the U.S. look like a selfish, pompous ass. Who gives a flip if the U.S. doesn't approve of these things? I wish Colombia would tell them off.

Also, the fifth paragraph got inverted somehow, and it took me a while to get all the pieces in order.

Miguel said...

Hi Vocabat,

It's not the first time the U.S. has appeared pompous and selfish. However, in some ways, if the actually do junk old trucks, some of Biden's ideas could be good for Colombia.