Sen. John McCain on Tuesday laid out his plans for strengthening democracy and U.S. influence in Latin America, vowing to extend free-trade pacts throughout the region and to continue isolating Cuba until the communist-ruled island frees political prisoners and allows multiparty elections.
The promises to uphold a hard line against the regime of Fidel and Raul Castro earned the presumptive Republican Party presidential nominee cheers from the mostly Cuban American crowd at a town hall meeting in southwest Miami.
"Florida will be yours!" local Spanish-language radio talk show host Ninoska Perez Castellon declared from the audience. She thanked McCain for the candidate's recognition of former political prisoners from Cuba on hand for the Cuban Independence Day event and for "refusing to deal with the Castros."
McCain described his Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama, as willing to sit down with Cuban President Raul Castro without preconditions. McCain said that would "send the worst possible signal to Cuba's dictators" by removing the pressure for fundamental reform in exchange for better ties.
McCain's address ranged broadly over Latin American relations and issues. He accused his Democratic opponents, Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, of blocking economic prosperity by opposing a free-trade agreement with Colombia.
"Colombia is a beacon of hope in a region where the Castro brothers, [Venezuelan President] Hugo Chavez and others are actively seeking to thwart economic progress and democracy," McCain said.
"Delaying approval of the Colombia Free Trade Agreement will not create one American job or start one American business," he said.
He also expressed sadness and frustration over Haiti's latest outbreak of unrest, calling the country "one of the longest-running tragic stories in our hemisphere."
In a question-and-answer session with the crowd of about 500, McCain was challenged on both his economic policies and the handling of terrorism suspects at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Trembling with emotion as he described his survival of the Castro regime only to face economic crises in his senior years, Cuban exile Jose Fuentes asked McCain: "What about the economy? What are you going to do about it?"
McCain said he would work first to prevent home foreclosures by creating a rescue plan in which government and lenders would collaborate and recover their bailout investments when the market improved and owners could sell at a profit.
"Secondly, we know we have to become independent of foreign oil," McCain said. "There are people who believe we can't do it. But there were people who believed we could never put a man on the moon, that we could never create the Internet."
Small-business owner Roxanna Greene was booed by the conservative crowd when she asked McCain how he felt as a former prisoner of war about the treatment of Guantanamo terrorism suspects.
McCain quieted the crowd, saying that "we want to be polite to everyone," then reiterated his preference for moving the prisoners to Ft. Leavenworth and putting them on trial at the Kansas military base with some, but not all, of the rights and protections accorded U.S. citizens on trial.