McCain Receives Warm Welcome to Colombia
By Juliet Eilperin
CARTAGENA, Colombia -- Sen. John McCain showered praise on Colombian President Alvaro Uribe tonight for his efforts to curb drug trafficking and guerrilla activity in his country.
"We have achieved a remarkable degree of success, even though we have a far way to go," McCain said.
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee, joined by his wife, Cindy, and Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), met with Uribe and his wife, Lina Moreno, at the Casa de Huespedes, the Colombian equivalent of Camp David. The group met for one hour 40 minutes, and discussed issues ranging from free trade to human rights abuses in Colombia.
McCain said he and Uribe discussed "a long list of issues, none of them having to do with the presidential campaign." He declined to mention Sen. Barack Obama by name, even when American reporters asked direct questions about his opponent, saying that he believes "any partisanship ends at the water's edge."
Uribe also emphasized bipartisanship in his remarks, which he delivered in Spanish, noting that he showed McCain and his guests two plaques commemorating the visits of former presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush to Colombia. The president made a point of saying he viewed recent comments by Obama "as positive" and that there are "permanent bipartisan policies" between Colombia and the United States.
McCain did not broach the topic of human rights in his opening statement, but he confirmed during a question-and-answer session that he raised the issue with Uribe during their private meeting. The issue of ongoing acts of violence against labor leaders and political dissidents continues to be a sensitive political issue for Colombia and its president.
Uribe is hoping to secure a free trade agreement with the United States but has come under fire for not doing enough to curb human rights abuses at home. Colombia has been embroiled in a civil war for years involving both a leftist guerilla group, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, and multiple right-wing paramilitaries. According to the National Labor School, Colombia's leading non-governmental organization monitoring labor rights, Colombia leads the world in trade unionist killings, with 2,600 reported murders since 1986. More than 400 trade unionists have been killed under Uribe's tenure.
"I have been a supporter of human rights for my entire life and career," McCain said. "We have discussed this issue with President Uribe, and we will continue to urge progress in that direction, and I believe that progress is being made, and I believe more progress needs to be made."
While McCain reiterated his support for a free trade pact and said he would press for a vote on the matter if elected president, he declined to speculate on what would happen if the United States elected a president with reservations about free trade, such as Obama. "I don't know the answer to that," he said. "I just know that free trade is an important issue, not just for Colombia but for the world, and the US economy."
The news conference, which took place in front of a linear building designed by famed Colombian architect Rogelio Salmona, was not without its technical difficulties. At one point the lamp illuminating Uribe and the visiting lawmakers went out, forcing staffers to aim lights intended for the translators in the direction of McCain and his companions.
McCain also spoke in detail about the government's battle against the FARC, describing it in the same terms he often uses to characterize the war in Iraq.
"Certainly it's my view that significant progress has been made against the FARC in the presidency of President Uribe," he said. "These struggles are always hard. I, again, agree there is a long way to go. This struggle is far from over. But I'm proud of the leadership and work of President Uribe and his strong and brave men and women working in the military."
American human rights and labor groups had pressed McCain before his departure for a more assertive statement on Uribe's human rights record. Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth wrote McCain a letter this week asking him to press for the same kind of respect for human rights he has demanded from leaders in Burma and Russia. Roth painted a bleak picture of conditions in Colombia.
"Accountability for serious crimes is almost non-existent and the rule of law has yet to take hold in much of the country. You would do a valuable service to the cause of human rights and human rights victims in Colombia by publicly raising concerns about these issues during your visit," Roth wrote, adding that in 97 percent of instances where labor leaders have been killed, "there has been no conviction and the killers remain free."
Many congressional Democrats and U.S. labor leaders cite this ongoing violence as a reason against ratifying the free trade agreement. AFL-CIO president John Sweeney said Tuesday that the presumptive GOP nominee was ignoring the harsh conditions under which many Colombians are living.
"McCain has said he would negotiate a 'free trade' agreement with 'almost any country willing to negotiate fairly with us' - without any consideration of the negative job impact on American workers or the egregious abuse of workers' rights abroad," Sweeney said in a statement. "In Colombia, 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."
July 1, 2008; 10:42 PM ET
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