CARTAGENA, Colombia (Reuters) - Republican John McCain, in an unusual trip to Colombia as a U.S. presidential candidate, called on President Alvaro Uribe on Tuesday to make further progress on human rights while pushing the U.S. Congress to vote on a trade pact between the two countries.
McCain, an Arizona senator who has secured his party’s White House nomination, kicked off a three-day trip to South America and Mexico by meeting Uribe in an effort to tout his positions on trade and showcase his foreign policy experience over that of Democratic rival Barack Obama.
In a nod to critics back home, McCain pressed the Colombian president to make further progress on human rights issues while highlighting the success of efforts under his administration in fighting the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), an outlawed leftist guerrilla group.
“I have been a supporter of human rights for my entire life and career. We have discussed this issue with President Uribe,” McCain told reporters after the meeting, with the Colombian president standing at his side.
“We will continue to urge progress in that direction. And I believe that progress is being made and I believe that more progress needs to be made.”
McCain urged Uribe to continue efforts to free three U.S. citizens kidnapped by the guerrilla group and praised him for stemming the flow of illegal drugs over U.S. borders.
Uribe, for his part, thanked McCain and made a positive reference to the Arizona senator’s White House rival, who has strongly opposed the Colombian Free Trade Agreement.
“Thank you, Sen. McCain for all your support of Colombia,” Uribe said. “We also consider the recent comments from Sen. Obama regarding Colombia to be positive.”
Obama said in May that his administration would support Colombia’s fight against the FARC and “shine a light” on any support the group got from neighboring governments.
When asked whether the two leaders had discussed Obama during their one hour and forty minute long meeting, McCain said no. “The only discussion that I had concerning the presidential campaign was that I believe that that any partisanship ends at the water’s edge,” he said.
McCain has highlighted Obama’s opposition to a free trade agreement with Colombia as an important difference between their respective candidacies. He called for the U.S. Congress to vote on the Colombian deal.
Obama has said he is not opposed to free trade as such. But he, like many Democrats, has argued that Colombia needs to reduce violence and murders of union members before the U.S. Congress votes on the pact.
Colombia sees the U.S. trade deal as central 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.
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 show off his foreign policy credentials while also focusing on issues important to Hispanic voters.
On Thursday he is scheduled to meet with Mexican President Felipe Calderon in Mexico City, where trade and immigration will feature on the agenda.
Obama has called for the North American Free Trade Agreement 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, although his campaign is paying for it.
Additional reporting by Hugh Bronstein; Editing by Eric Walsh