McCain, an Arizona senator who has secured his party’s White House nomination, is meeting with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and other officials in the first leg of a three-day journey that will also include Mexico. “We want to talk about drugs to a large degree. We want to talk about the progress that they’ve made against the FARC,” McCain told reporters about the goals of his visit, referring to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), an outlawed leftist guerrilla group. Free trade will also be on the agenda, he said during the flight to the South American nation. Human rights — an issue that critics encouraged him to bring up — will be on the table as will Uribe’s call for a new election. “Wherever there’s a single abuse of human rights, it concerns me,” McCain said. “I will also add that there has also been significant improvement (in Colombia) and I want to see that improvement continue.” McCain has highlighted Obama’s opposition to a free trade agreement with Colombia as a key difference between their respective candidacies, and though he pledged not to criticize the Illinois senator on foreign soil, he pushed for the pact.”He doesn’t support the Colombian Free Trade Agreement. I think it would … have very serious consequences if we rebuked our closest ally,” McCain said on Monday. He brushed off concerns that his advocacy for such an agreement would not play well in important electoral states, such as Ohio, where many people blame a loss of manufacturing jobs on free trade agreements. McCain said he understood the concerns, and advocated training programs to get the unemployed back to work. Colombia sees the U.S. trade deal as key to its efforts to stabilize its commercial relationship with the world’s biggest economy and regain the investment grade credit rating it lost as a consequence of its 1999 economic crisis. Obama, like many other Democrats, has argued that Colombia needs to reduce violence and murders of union members before the U.S. Congress votes on the pact. The trip has drawn some controversy. The Arizona senator has praised Uribe for chipping away at the FARC, but some have said he needs to press harder on human rights issues. “We urge you to make protecting and defending Colombian democratic institutions, particularly its institutions of justice, a top priority in your meetings,” advocacy group Human Rights Watch said in a letter to McCain. The trip gives the Republican senator a chance to demonstrate his commitment to free trade while also focusing on issues that are important to Hispanic voters, a voting bloc he is trying to court at home.On Thursday he is scheduled to meet with Mexican President Felipe Calderon in Mexico City before returning to Arizona for the July 4 U.S. Independence Day holiday. (Reuters)
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