John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee for the November presidential election, will travel to Cartagena, Colombia on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Why, in the midst of a hotly contested campaign season, might McCain want to leave the country and go to Colombia?
The most likely answer is one word: Florida.
Florida is the biggest “swing state,” as the world saw clearly in 2000. And one of its chief “swing” constituencies are Latino voters.
Many of these Latino voters are people who left their home countries after leftists came to power: Cubans who fled Castro; Venezuelans who flocked to Dade and Broward counties after ChÃ¡vez was elected; even middle-and-upper-class Colombians who abandoned their country in the late 1990s, when the FARC’s strength made the security situation too precarious.
Needless to say, anybody who fits those descriptions likely adores Colombian President Ãlvaro Uribe, the polar opposite of Castro and ChÃ¡vez whose policies have reduced the FARC’s ability to operate in populated areas. So if you’re John McCain, why not spend a couple of days with Uribe to win that voting bloc’s favor?
Plus, Florida is a state that trades heavily with Latin America. In Florida – unlike Ohio or Michigan – support for the Colombia Free Trade Agreement is high. For McCain, visiting Colombia is a sure way to distinguish his position on the FTA from that of Barack Obama, who opposes it, before a Floridian audience.
For Senator McCain, visiting Colombia is a smart electoral move.
His visit also reinforces Ãlvaro Uribe’s position as one of the last great hopes of the global right wing. In the United States, a mixture of military buildups and free-market orthodoxy has contributed to George Bush’s sub-30% approval rating. But in Colombia, a similar combination has propelled Uribe’s numbers into the stratosphere.
Over the years, Senator McCain’s office has not been particularly responsive to Colombia-focused appeals from organizations like the Center for International Policy. Senator McCain has declined to sign even the most respectfully worded letters and appeals expressing human rights concerns. When we have hosted visits from Colombian human-rights defenders, hostages’ families and others, his staff has never responded positively to meeting requests.
As a result, it makes little sense to recommend that Senator McCain, while in Colombia, express concerns about impunity, threats against human-rights defenders, para-politics, extra-judicial executions or the frustrating failure of counter-drug efforts. Since McCain has scheduled meetings with U.S. business and oil-company executives, his agenda appears to be quite the opposite.
There are, however, a few recommendations within the realm of what Senator McCain might follow. In particular, there are several ways that Senator McCain might send a message that his policy toward Colombia, and Latin America in general, will be more than just – as the Obama camp puts it – “Bush’s third term.”
Here are four.
- Send a message of solidarity to the FARC’s three U.S. hostages. Keith Stansell, Thomas Howes and Marc Gonsalves have been in guerrilla custody, deep in Colombia’s jungles, since February 2003. According to recently freed Colombian hostage Luis Eladio PÃ©rez, who spent more than a year chained with them in 2006-2008, the three men feel abandoned and forgotten by the U.S. government.
According to PÃ©rez, they are avid radio listeners, and they took it hard when President Bush and Secretary of State Rice visited Colombia in 2007 and 2008 and failed to offer any message of support or solidarity. Neither U.S. leader mentioned the men by name, and they only discussed their situation at all in answer to reportersâ€™ questions.
Senator McCain, please do not repeat that error. Mention the three Americans publicly by name, and assure them that they are not forgotten. They will hear you. Continue reading »