CARTAGENA, Colombia (Reuters) - Trade, drugs and immigration will top the agenda of U.S. Republican presidential candidate John McCain during a visit to Colombia and Mexico this week designed to showcase his foreign policy experience over that of Democratic rival Barack Obama.
McCain, an Arizona senator who has wrapped up his party’s White House nomination, was to meet with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and other officials in Cartagena on Tuesday and Wednesday in the first leg of a three-day journey to South and Central America.
He arrived in the coastal Colombian city on Tuesday evening.
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.
The trip gives the Republican senator a chance to illustrate 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.
“I want to go to thank them for their efforts, both Mexico and Colombia, in trying to combat the drug trade,” McCain told reporters on Monday about the goals of his trip.
“I want to tell them of my belief in free-trade agreements but also urge them, especially in the case of Mexico, to reform their economy so that it’s more of an open and competitive economy.”
Obama, an Illinois senator, has called for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to be renegotiated to improve environmental and labor provisions. He threatened to pull out of the pact, which groups the United States, Mexico and Canada, if necessary to obtain the improvements.
McCain has criticized his opponent’s position and used a trip to Canada last month to highlight his own support of NAFTA. Like his Canadian sojourn, McCain insisted this visit was not a political one. His campaign is funding it, but he is unlikely to attack Obama while on foreign soil.
Even so, McCain singled out Obama’s opposition to a free-trade pact with Colombia as differences in their respective candidacies, which his trip will seek to highlight.
“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.
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.
Others encouraged McCain to focus 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 Arizona senator defended Uribe for chipping away at the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), an outlawed leftist guerrilla group.
“We all are advocates of human rights, and the nation of Colombia is going though one of the bloodiest civil wars that we’ve ever seen in our hemisphere,” he said.
“Thanks to the leadership of President Uribe and the support of the people of Colombia, they’ve made significant progress against FARC.”
Regarding Mexico, McCain said he would make immigration a key talking point.
“I want to work with the Mexican government on securing our border,” he said. “It would be so much easier if we had the ability to trust our neighbors to the south as much as we trust our neighbors to the north as far as cooperation on border security is concerned.”
additional reporting by Hugh Bronstein in Bogota
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