On Tuesday, Sen. John McCain will travel to Colombia to highlight his support for a free trade pact with that country.
It is a trip that comes with a share of political risk. While the Arizona Republican is hoping to showcase his command of the world stage, his venture south of the border raises concerns from those opposed to his trade policies. Already, his position as an independent arbitrator on Colombia - a country often criticized for its labor and human rights practices - is undermined by a bevy of advisers who have earned large amounts either lobbying for the Colombia Free Trade Agreement, or representing corporations that do business with that country.
On some occasions, these companies have been linked to the killings of union workers and other civilians, sometimes in collusion with Colombia's government or allied paramilitary groups.
McCain's chief political adviser, Charlie Black, represented the oil-giant Occidental Petroleum from 2001 through 2007, in the process earning $1.6 million in fees for his firm, according to lobbying records. Among the issues on which he lobbied included the Colombia Free Trade Agreement (though also general energy topics concerning Middle East countries). Occidental gained a certain amount of political infamy when its security company was accused of bombing a Colombian village and killing 17 civilians in 1998. The company, which works with the country's military forces to protect an oil pipeline, denied involvement in the attack. But in 2007, Occidental again found itself in the midst of a human-rights mess, this time accused in congressional testimony of being "complicit" - with several other major corporations - in the murder of three labor leaders.
Black isn't the only McCain confidante with connections to companies pushing for free trade with Colombia. Kirk Blalock, a bundler who has raised at least $250,000 for the Senator, lobbied on behalf of American Forest & Paper Association, Ford Motor company, General Pharmaceutical Association, and Miller Brewing, all of which have championed the Colombia Free Trade Agreement.
Peter Madigan, another top fundraiser for the presumptive GOP nominee, was described as a lobbyist who "works for the government of Colombia" to "promote a U.S.-Colombia free-trade agreement" by ABC News. A lobbyist at Johnson, Madigan, Peck, Boland & Stewart, Madigan's clients include Philip Morris, Arthur Andersen, Charles Schwab, Goldman Sachs, Shell Oil and Verizon. His firm, ABC wrote, has "distributed papers defending Colombian President Alvaro Uribe against allegations of ties to paramilitary groups, and promoting the controversial anti-drug program 'Plan Colombia' as achieving 'strengthening human rights.'"
Meanwhile, Susan Nelson, McCain's finance director, and Tom Loeffler, the recently resigned national finance chairman, both lobbied in the past for the Colombia FTA on behalf of Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America. In the process they earned tens of thousands of dollars for their firm, The Loeffler Group.
"It seems that McCain's entire brain trust is pushing for these trade deals," said Bill Holland, deputy director of Global Trade Watch. "And after the primaries, when we have seen that Americans are overwhelming rejecting the current model, to have all these advisers pushing it is a bad sign."
McCain himself seemed to acknowledge that improvements were needed in the Colombian government's human rights record during a press conference on Monday. But he cast President Uribe's moves in targeting and cracking down on labor leaders and political foes as functions of his goverment's broader, more noble, battle against domestic terrorism.
The U.S. should not "throw out the entire theory of free trade" aside, said the Senator. "Failure to ratify the free trade agreement sends a message throughout the hemisphere: If you're a friend of the United States, don't count on them."
But prominent labor figures and progressives in the United States -- not to mention opponents of free trade -- contend that it is a U.S. imperative to persuade Colombia to adjust its labor laws. Citing the murder of 39 trade unionists in 2007 (and more than 2,500 such deaths since 1986), they argue that companies that do business in Colombia, and those that use the government's military arm to protect their position, "bear an enormous responsibility" for these abuses. And that it would be hard for any president to persuade these corporations if their lobbyists are on the payroll.
"It is unconscionable that American companies would essentially buy into the system of terror that the paramilitary organizations are inflicting on the country," said Thea Lee, Policy Director at AFL-CIO. "We would certainly call on any American company operating in the country not to team up with the paramilitaries.
"This whole idea that [McCain] goes down to Colombia to show himself as a great statesman and he won't say anything critical of the Uribe government, and he has staffers who are paid lobbyists for some of the companies guilty in this discussion, I can't imagine who is advising him on this strategy."