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Activists Fear Free Trade Act Will Restrict Access to AIDS Drugs in Central America

As the U.S. Congress prepares to debate passage of the Central America Free Trade Act, some activists in the region are hoping lawmakers in Washington will vote it down. Peasant organizations and trade unions, worried about the effects of competition with U.S. companies, are not the only ones taking to the streets. Catherine Elton is in Guatemala City, and, in this VOA report, explains why HIV-positive Guatemalans are also opposed to the accord.

Rigoberto, a 55-year-old taxi driver, has been coming to this Guatemala City AIDS clinic for his retroviral medicine for more than a year. But since the government ratified CAFTA, he says he has been worried about getting the drugs he needs in the future. Activists say the accord's provisions on intellectual property rights put serious restrictions on generic drugs in countries that are too poor to pay for brand-name products.

"We can not buy expensive medicines," he says, adding that if he cannot get medicine, he will die.

With the exception of the Caribbean, the Central American nations of Honduras and Guatemala have the highest per-capita HIV-rates in the hemisphere.

During the past decade, activists have sued Central American governments to force them to provide AIDS medicines in public- and social-security-run hospitals. In recent years, activists like Costa Rican Guillermo Murillo have fought to get governments to extend coverage to more patients.

While it is great that governments now give medicine, he says, more than half the population in the region needing it is still not getting it. Under CAFTA, he says, it will be impossible to extend coverage.

Currently, generic retroviral treatments here cost about 400-dollars per year per patient. In coming years, patients may need to switch to new medicines, which under CAFTA would only be available in brand-name form. These can cost as much as 10-thousand dollars per year per person.

Late last year in Guatemala, AIDS activists scored a big victory when a new law was passed that further opened the country's market to generic drugs. But the U.S. Embassy and Trade Representative put stern and open pressure on the government to change the law, saying it contradicted the already negotiated CAFTA.

In March, weeks before ratifying the free trade accord, the government changed the law to bring it in line with CAFTA.

Rodolfo Lambour, who represents multi-national pharmaceutical companies in Guatemala, agreed with the U.S. government's actions.

"For many years, there has been no intellectual property rights protection in Central America, and now, we feel the time has come to respect a little bit the intellectual property rights - which are legitimate and fair - of companies that invest more than any other sector in industry, in research and development of new products. It is our companies that help discover new and innovative products that have given cures to many incurable diseases in the past. We are not the enemy; we are friends of the people," Mr. Lambour says.

Mr. Lambour says there are mechanisms by which governments can still get affordable medicine for AIDS programs, without hurting the companies that develop them. Some analysts note there is a side letter to CAFTA that says intellectual property rights provisions should not affect government AIDS programs.

But people like Alain Kergoat, of the humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders, says the only sure-fire way for Central Americans to ensure continued access to generic drugs is for the U.S. Congress to vote against CAFTA.

"I hope there is enough time to explain to people in the United States the effect this accord will have on health systems in these countries, he says."

At a recent protest outside Guatemala's Health Ministry, HIV-positive demonstrators wearing paper bags over their heads shout, "We want health."

They say they are planning to stage protests like this one in front of U.S. Embassies across the region, and they are also working with AIDS activists in the United States to lobby Congress.

The Senate is scheduled to hold its first debate on CAFTA Wednesday.