Germán Velázquez, a native from Manizales, has carried out missions ranging from the democratization of medicines to the non-privatization of the UN’s global agency.
Magazine Estilo de Vida by Claudia M. Gómez – Writing: Pilar Bolivar – Photo: Germán Velázquez
In an estate built more than a century ago in the town closest to Geneva, Switzerland, there lives a Colombian who has so far held the highest position in the World Health Organization. Today, along with his wife -his partner and ally-, his four children and his exquisite library (which, in addition to his doctoral thesis on economics at the Sorbonne, his WHO Red Book on copyright patent exceptions and his honorary investiture granted in 2015 by the School of Medicine at Madrid’s Complutense University, preserves some pre-Columbian guacas), Germán Velásquez continues his tireless fight for access to universal health.
Magazine Estilo de Vida by Claudia M. Gómez – Photo: Germán Velázquez
He has been doing it for a decade as an analyst, having served as Coordinator of the Medicines Program at the WHO headquarters in Geneva, and now serving as Special Adviser on Policy and Health at South Center, an intergovernmental organization based in the Swiss capital that advises 54 developing countries. “I spent 20 years at the WHO; I left 10 years ago, and in my current position, half of my job is to track what’s going on at the WHO, so now I know it inside out even more than when I used to work there”, said Velazquez with his strong Manizales accent, who is also a philosopher from the Javeriana University and defines himself as a “child pampered by life,” by having gotten his battles not only to cause blisters in the global governments and health systems, but also to have guided him throughout a career that he “modestly acknowledges, has been quite successful and brilliant”, claims the health ‘Robin Hood’ who has been a victim of intimidation for defending his ideals and the fundamental human rights.
Magazine Estilo de Vida by Claudia M. Gómez
– CLAUDIA M GÓMEZ: How has that skillful combination of philosophy and economics served health?
GERMÁN VELÁSQUEZ: When I finished philosophy, I was thinking of going to Europe to study a master’s degree in political science. When I realized that I had a diploma in philosophy from the Javeriana University and that if I would have combined it with political science I was going to die of hunger because I wouldn’t get a job, then my friends advised me to study economics.
I pursued a master’s degree in economics at the Sorbonne and then looked for work. By chance of life I found one in a pharmaceutical company in Indonesia; then they transferred me to Belgium and then to Switzerland (Lugano), and during those three years with that american pharmaceutical company, I realized a series of aberrations regarding pharmaceutical industry practices. I discovered with surprise and pain, that it was not an industry at the health service, but rather at the service of particular benefits and with commercial interests over public health.
– CMG: Hence your Masters’ thesis at the Sorbonne on the pharmaceutical industry?
GV: Yes; I decided to leave that pharmaceutical company so that, with that 3-year experience, I could undertake a doctorate at the Sorbonne. When I withdrew, I met who my wife is today; she was going to do a thesis in anthropology in Mozambique and told me to go with her, but I said, ‘if you find me a job, I will go with you’, and she had the opportunity to see the Minister of Health of Mozambique at a conference he gave in Paris, after which he said: ‘I need someone who can advise me to build a pharmaceutical industry’ and Christine (my wife) came up to him and told him about me.
The minister told her to send him my curriculum and after a week, when I was 25 years old, I was the Private Counselor of the Minister of Health of Mozambique. While working, I also continued with my thesis at the Sorbonne, and after three and a half years I went to Paris to present it, being one of the first papers published in France with a review on the pharmaceutical industry.
It was titled The Medicine Industry and the Third World. I presented it and substantiated at the Sorbonne, and for its quality, it was published by a well-known French publishing house. I went back to Mozambique and after a month I was called by Christine’s parents to tell me that there was a half-page article about my book in Le Monde newspaper; it was no less than a review by Alfred Sauvy, who explained that it was a high-quality book, giving it a lot of praise. Ever since then, I have never had to look for a job, and I’ve always been offered job offers. That’s why I’ve been a spoiled child.