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McCain defends free trade with Colombia

Republican presidential nominee John McCain began a two-day visit to Colombia on Tuesday.

McCain and his wife Cindy met President Alvaro Uribe at the Colombian leader’s official retreat.

The Arizona senator was also accompanied by two of his top supporters, Senators Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman.

McCain is a strong supporter of a proposed free trade agreement between the US and Colombia and he planned to promote it during his visit.

"The free trade is an important issue, not only for Colombia but I believe for the economy of the world and as you know for the United States economy," McCain said

His Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, opposes the Colombian agreement, which has stalled in the House of Representatives amid concerns about continuing intimidation and violence against labor leaders in the country.

According to the Medellin-based Escuela Nacional Sindical, a labor research institute, more than 2500 trade unionists have been killed in Colombia since 1986 including 39 murdered in 2007 and 31 so far this year. More than 400 of these killings have come during President Uribe’s administration.

Before his departure, McCain had been urged by human rights and labor groups to take a strong stand on Uribe’s human rights record.

John Sweeny, President of the AFL CIO said:
" Hundreds of trade unionists have been systematically murdered, tortured, kidnapped and threatened by paramilitary organizations during the tenure of President Alvaro Uribe. Yet Sen. McCain will tout the supposed benefits of the proposed U.S.-Colombia [Free Trade Agreement] in the resort city of Cartagena, Colombia, while ignoring the real threats that workers in Colombia face every day."

McCain also had meetings with other government officials and business leaders and a tour of a naval base before departing for Mexico in the evening.

Some say that the visit by McCain, Graham and Lieberman could be about more than trade agreements. We spoke to author Forrest Hylton.

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Story Transcript

Is McCain in Colombia for free trade?

Cartagena, Colombia

CARLO BASILONE (VOICEOVER): Republican presidential nominee John McCain began a two-day visit to Colombia on Tuesday. McCain and his wife, Cindy, met President Álvaro Uribe at the Colombian leader’s official retreat. The Arizona senator was accompanied by two of his top supporters, Senators Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman. McCain is a strong supporter of a proposed free trade agreement between the US and Colombia, and he planned to promote it during his visit.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, US PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE (R): Free trade is an important issue not only for Colombia, but I believe for the economy of the world and, as you know, for the United States economy.

BASILONE: His Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, opposes the Colombian agreement, which has stalled in the House of Representatives amid concerns about continuing intimidation and violence against labor leaders in the country. According to the Medellin-based Escuela Nacional Sindical, a labor research institute, more than 2,500 trade unionists have been killed in Colombia since 1986, including 39 murdered in 2007 and 31 so far this year. More than 400 of these killings have come during President Uribe’s administration. Before his departure, McCain had been urged by human rights and labor groups to take a strong stand on Uribe’s human rights record. John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, said, "Hundreds of trade unionists have been systematically murdered, tortured, kidnapped and threatened by paramilitary organizations during the tenure of President Alvaro Uribe. Yet Senator McCain will tout the supposed benefits of the proposed US-Colombia [Free Trade Agreement] in the resort city of Cartagena while ignoring the real threats that workers in Colombia face every day." McCain also had meetings with other government officials and business leaders and a tour of a naval base before departing for Mexico in the evening. Some say that the visit by McCain, Graham, and Lieberman could be about more than trade agreements. We spoke to author Forrest Hylton.

FORREST HYLTON, AUTHOR: It seems clear to me that Colombia and Mexico right now are the anchors of US imperial power in Latin America. So it would make sense that those would be the countries that they visited. If they’re going to kind of retake Latin America, which has been, quote-unquote, "lost" by the Bush administration, they’re going to need firm anchors in both Mexico and Colombia. So they’re basically just trying to reinforce their ties with their closest allies, for whom they’re working very hard to supply the necessary military budgets, equipment, training, and so forth.

BASILONE: McCain on this trip was talking about free trade. Is this a pretense, then? Or do you think that’s part of the deal too?

HYLTON: Well, I think that for folks like McCain, as well as for the president of Colombia, Álvaro Uribe, there is really no clear separation between issues of free trade and the militarization of politics both within the country and within the region. So as President Bush said on March 2 or 3, right after President Álvaro Uribe of Colombia bombed Ecuadorian territory in pursuit of one of the FARC leaders, whom they killed, an issue of national security for Colombia and the United States is at stake in discussions of free trade. I think McCain holds the exact same position as President Bush in that respect, and that’s the position that Álvaro Uribe holds as well. So for all of them, there’s a direct link between national security and free trade, which is why opponents of free trade in Colombia are often depicted as enemies of Colombia’s national security.

BASILONE: Is this also a message to Hugo Chavez of Venezuela?

HYLTON: No question. You know, McCain is not visiting any of these other presidents, not discussing the possibility of regional negotiations. Obviously there’s been a huge push within South America and Latin America more generally to develop regional diplomatic initiatives that don’t pass directly through the United States. And, in fact, the United States has been cut out of the diplomatic loop in the region. So a logical thing to do would be to try to get back in the loop by meeting with various presidents from around South America. But no, McCain chooses to go to the country that the United States is supporting most heavily in terms of military and political commitments.

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