BOGOTA, Colombia – John McCain kicked off a three-day Latin American trip on Tuesday, proclaiming his support for a free trade deal with Colombia and backing its president’s war against drugs and leftist rebels.
Speaking at the historic coastal city of Cartagena, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate voiced pro-free trade views at a time when such policies are increasingly unpopular in Congress and with the U.S. public.
McCain’s Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, has said he is opposed to free trade with Colombia unless it makes significant advances in improving labor and human rights. Killings of Colombian labor leaders over the years have galvanized Democratic opposition to a deal.
But McCain, speaking as Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and his traveling companions U.S. Sens. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., looked on, described the benefits of free trade as significant.
“Free trade is important for Colombia and for the world,” McCain said.
Campaign officials said McCain was making his trip to Colombia and Mexico, where he will fly today and stay until late Thursday afternoon, to emphasize his national security credentials and to differentiate himself from Obama on trade. But some observers said his policy stance carried risks with an electorate that sees free trade as tilting against U.S. workers.
That concern comes despite some experts’ assessment that U.S. businesses, on balance, would be the real winners. A key reason: Under the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act now in effect, more than 90 percent of all goods that Colombia sells in the United States enter duty-free, while duties are imposed on nearly all U.S. goods sold in Colombia.
While fielding questions from reporters, McCain said he discussed human rights issues “at some length” with Uribe.
McCain also was asked about a recent U.N. survey that showed a 27 percent increase in coca cultivation here over the last year, despite the U.S. aid showered on this country under Plan Colombia. McCain pointed out that street prices of cocaine had risen in recent months, which he said was an indication that “the strategy is working.”
Some observers explain higher production with statistics that show more Colombian cocaine is sold in Europe than before.
McCain, who was accompanied by his wife, Cindy, thanked Uribe “for the progress you have achieved” against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, noting that Colombian armed forces had killed and captured several rebel leaders over the last year .