McCain tours Colombia

July 2, 2008 2:28:44 PM PDT
John McCain hailed the economic benefits of free trade to Colombians Wednesday, raising the possibility of an eventual hemispheric-wide agreement even though a weak economy at home has soured many U.S. voters on trade agreements. The GOP presidential nominee-in-waiting also toured Colombia's largest port by speedboat to review the country's U.S.-backed drug interdiction programs, a day after he praised President Alvaro Uribe for Colombia's anti-drug efforts but pressed him to improve the government's record on human rights.

McCain was in the country when Colombia freed Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. military contractors from leftist guerrillas. President Alvaro Uribe had told McCain and the two senators traveling with him, Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham, about the rescue plans when they arrived Tuesday night. The senators were holding a media availability at the time of the rescue and didn't learn of its success until they were aboard a plane bound for Mexico.

The Arizona senator got in several plugs for a proposed U.S.-Colombian Free Trade Agreement his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, opposes, suggesting the tariffs imposed on American goods now exported to Colombia would disappear under the agreement - creating jobs in the United States instead.

McCain was also promoting NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, which he has said would benefit the U.S. economy over time. Such agreements have been deeply unpopular in several general election swing states like Ohio and Michigan.

And he said such trade agreements should be broadened to include other countries.

"I would like to see a hemispheric free trade agreement," McCain said at a news conference here. "I would like to see our continued assistance to countries like Columbia."

Protectionist sentiment at home is worrisome "because history shows that isolationism and protectionism has very unpleasant consequences," McCain said.

But he added: "I am committed to getting every single American displaced from his or her job because of foreign competition ... a new job and a better future."

The Republican presidential hopeful wrapped up a visit to Colombia and was headed to Mexico on a two-day Latin American swing he insisted was not intended to be political.

The Obama campaign criticized McCain's visit in an e-mail to reporters Wednesday, saying the Republican's support for trade agreements "just underscores his insistence on continuing George Bush's failed economic policies that have left nearly 2.5 million more workers unemployed."

In a conference call in Washington organized by the Democratic National Committee, Linda Chavez-Thompson said McCain's support for the Colombia free trade agreement is nothing more than Washington politics putting lobbyists and special interests first.

Chavez-Thompson, a former executive vice president of the AFL-CIO, pointed to McCain adviser Charlie Black, who recently retired from the prominent Washington lobbying firm he helped found. The firm has long represented companies with major business interests in Colombia, including Occidental Petroleum Corp.

McCain began the day visiting a Naval hospital, where he handed out awards to soldiers wounded by improvised explosive devices.

Touring the Port of Cartagena, McCain rode a boat operated by the Colombian Navy but paid for by U.S. funds under Plan Colombia, a ten year, $5 billion effort to stem the flow of cocaine and other drugs out of the country. The fleet of boats, dubbed the Midnight Express, patrol the port day and night, intercepting other boats suspected of carrying illegal drugs out of the port.

"There is a long way to go to stem the flow of drugs into the United States of America," McCain said. "The progress I've seen since previous visits here has been substantial and positive, while recognizing that in human rights and other issues, progress still needs to be made."

He also reviewed Plan Colombia-sponsored efforts to search cargo containers suspected of smuggling drugs aboard large ships coming in and out of the port.

The Arizona senator is accompanied on the trip by his wife, Cindy.


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