Several years’ work has brought us finally to the island of Maui. Twelve nations have sent ministers and delegations here to attempt to conclude negotiations of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The U.S. government, pressed by business lobbies and their election spending, will ask small and developing countries to trade away health and financial regulation for a chance to sell more goods in the United States. It is a horrible choice if you are a negotiator who cares for your people.
Maui’s western shore looks out on a vast flat lagoon bound by the next two islands in the chain. Slack key guitars populate the radio. Families walk about artificial ponds in their bathing suits just meters from the trade talks at the luxurious Ka’anapali Beach Resort.
We cannot enter the meeting rooms. Guards were posted before discussions began, presumably to prevent infiltration by our kind: civil society observers that have concerns about proposed rules. The negotiations are secret, our government tells us, because if they were public, they would fail. Nevertheless, over the years we have built relationships with negotiators and helped develop an alliance that is holding off some of the deal’s worst potential consequences. The U.S. government and several of the world’s most powerful corporate lobbies plan to end that resistance this week.
Discussions last until 3 in the morning. The best negotiators carry the weight of their people’s interests with them. We cross paths in the resort’s labyrinth of diversion. They are visibly stressed by the possibility that they may have to make trades in which they do not believe, and then live with the consequences and guilt.
Through the week we take meetings with many government advisers, as we have for five years, to discuss deeply technical issues like definitions for biologic medicines and patent linkage. One eve at sunset, we join 400 friends on the beach in protest, listening to a Hawaiian rite and blowing conch shells in unison. The buzz can be heard and felt in the negotiating halls.
A week in, ministers reach an impasse. The United States wants guaranteed monopolies for new cancer drugs and other biologics, in all the TPP countries, for at least eight years. This is a gift to the biotech industry, and it will mean preventable suffering and death for people in need of treatment.
Our allies say no. They will not be moved. Neither the U.S. trade ambassador, nor the pharma lobbyists, nor the personal phone calls from President Obama this week will persuade them. And so, finally, negotiations must move on to other topics, without hope for conclusion unless they can resolve medicines issues later.
The next day, the entire ministerial falls apart. Everyone — journalists, lobbyists, negotiators, and our public interest clan — swarms for the ministers’ press conference. With the coming election seasons, it is hard to say when, or if, the ministers come together again.
It takes a few moments to understand that we can rest. We have been unreasonably dressed for Hawaii. We begin to unburden ourselves.
We see some of our negotiator friends one more time before we all fly out. They are relieved and laughing. They tell us that, for now at least, they have been able to protect their people. I sense they will return home to families and work at their public agencies with lighter hearts. Along the bounds of this ocean, many people will get the medicine they need. That makes the work worthwhile.