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Los Angeles Times - In Colombia, McCain backs Free Trade

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Location: Bogota, Columbia

Los Angeles Times - In Colombia, McCain backs Free Trade

John McCain kicked off a three-day Latin American trip on Tuesday, proclaiming his support for a free-trade deal with Colombia and backing its president's war against drugs and leftist rebels.

Speaking in the historic coastal city of Cartagena, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate voiced pro-free-trade views at a time when such policies are increasingly unpopular in Congress and with the U.S. public.

*McCain stumps strategists by playing up his unpopular stance on free trade

*Colombia coca farming is up, U.N. says

McCain's Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, has said he is opposed to free trade with Colombia unless the nation makes significant advances in improving labor and human rights. Killings of Colombian labor leaders over the years have galvanized Democratic opposition to a deal.

But McCain, speaking as Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and traveling companions Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) looked on, described the benefits of free trade as significant.

"Free trade is important for Colombia and for the world," he said.

Campaign officials said McCain was making his trip to Colombia and Mexico, where he will fly today and stay until Thursday afternoon, to emphasize his national security credentials and to differentiate himself from Obama on trade. But some observers said his policy stance carried risks with an electorate that sees free trade as tilting against U.S. workers.

That concern comes despite some experts' assessments that U.S. businesses, on balance, would be the real winners. A key reason: Under the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act now in effect, more than 90% of all goods that Colombia sells in the United States enter duty-free, while duties are imposed on nearly all U.S. goods sold in Colombia.

McCain said he discussed human rights issues "at some length" with Uribe.

McCain was asked about a recent United Nations survey that showed a 27% increase in coca cultivation in Colombia over the last year, despite U.S. aid showered on the country under Plan Colombia. McCain pointed out that street prices of cocaine had risen in recent months, which he said was an indication that "the strategy is working."

Some observers explain higher production with statistics that show more Colombian cocaine is sold in Europe than before.

McCain, who was accompanied by his wife, Cindy, thanked Uribe "for the progress" he had made against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, noting that Colombian armed forces had killed and captured several rebel leaders over the last year.

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