McCain in Colombia to push free trade

Sen. John McCain arrived Tuesday night in Colombia to promote a free trade agreement he says would bolster a key ally in the war on drugs but has stalled in Congress.

The presumptive Republican presidential nominee is visiting this South American country to showcase his foreign policy and pro-business credentials.

The U.S.-Colombian trade deal has gained prominence as an issue in the presidential race, generating opposition from labor unions and others who worry that lower tariffs on Colombian goods could lead to a loss of American manufacturing jobs.

Here in Colombia, the issue is as much about drugs as it is about trade.

Colombia's government says the deal would provide an economic incentive for farmers who grow coca — the raw material used to produce cocaine — to produce other goods.

Colombia produces 90% of the cocaine consumed in the USA. Conservative President Alvaro Uribe, one of Washington's closest allies in a region that has several left-leaning leaders, has made reducing coca cultivation one of his main priorities, although results have been mixed.

"We feel mistreated by the U.S. Congress," said Alejandro Velez, vice president of the Farmers' Society of Colombia. "There's a national sense of incredulity."

Crop-dusters roar across Colombia's hills and valleys almost daily, dumping white plumes of herbicide to kill coca plants and curb the cocaine industry.

"We want to make sure our farmers can always count on having a market, because if they don't have options, they will turn to coca," Velez said.

The U.S. House of Representatives voted in April to postpone a decision on the trade deal. Uribe said after the vote that it would be "incomprehensible, inexplicable to deny a country like Colombia a free trade treaty."

Colombia does $18 billion in trade with the U.S. Gold, emeralds, coffee and oil lead the South American country's exports.

Colombia also is the United States' biggest foreign supplier of cut flowers such as roses and carnations.

Many of Colombia's exports, including coffee and bananas, enjoy trade perks under other U.S. laws.

Human rights groups have urged lawmakers to wait on the bill, saying Colombia needs to crack down on killings of labor activists. More than 25 trade unionists have been killed this year, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch.

On Tuesday, U.S. labor unions attacked McCain for backing the trade deal.

"Working people have seen bad trade deals send their jobs overseas and decimate their communities," AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said in a written statement.

Some Colombian politicians have their own concerns. The agreement would immediately eliminate tariffs on 80% of American exports to Colombia, and the rest would be phased out over 10 years.

"It's a way of making us more dependent on U.S. goods," said Rep. German Enrique Reyes, a lawmaker for the liberal Alternative Democratic Pole.

McCain and his wife, Cindy, met Uribe at the president's ceremonial home in Cartagena before a meeting between the two men and several Colombian Cabinet ministers.

McCain was accompanied by two of his top supporters, Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut.

From Colombia, McCain will head to Mexico, where he planned to address illegal immigration — an emotional issue both for Hispanic voters and many conservatives.

Contributing: Wire reports

Hawley is Latin America correspondent for USA TODAY and The Arizona Republic