McCain Warns Against Spread of Socialism

The Associated Press
Wednesday, March 21, 2007; 2:42 PM

MIAMI -- Republican presidential candidate John McCain warned on Wednesday against the spread of socialism in Latin America and pledged to give the region renewed U.S. attention if elected.

Appearing in Little Havana, McCain carefully avoided criticism of President Bush but said the Iraq war "has diverted attention from our hemisphere and we have paid a penalty for that" in the form of a growing leftism embodied by leaders Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia.

In a speech to veterans of the ill-fated, CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, McCain said his first trip if elected to the White House in 2008 would be to Mexico, Canada and Latin America "to reaffirm my commitment to our hemisphere and the importance of relations within our hemisphere."

The Arizona senator said that "everyone should understand the connections" between Chavez, Morales and communist Cuban President Fidel Castro.

"They inspire each other. They assist each other. They get ideas from each other," McCain said. "It's very disturbing."

Cuban-Americans are a key voting bloc in electoral-rich Florida and typically cast their ballots for Republicans.

As president, McCain said he would work on political, diplomatic and economic fronts to counter the rise of socialism, including efforts to spread free trade. Yet the United States must also stress the advantages of capitalism and democracy to win "a war of ideas" in the region, he said.

McCain had a clearly receptive audience among the aging Bay of Pigs veterans, who consider him a hero for the years he spent as a prisoner of war in what was then communist North Vietnam. The group's president, former CIA agent Felix Rodriguez, noted McCain's years in captivity in his introduction and said: "It's a distinct honor to have you."

McCain was presented with a copy of the book "Against All Hope" by former Cuban political prisoner Armando Valladares, who was frequently tortured during his 22 years in a Cuban prison. McCain said that while he was in Hanoi, a Cuban agent came to show his Vietnamese captors "some new interrogation techniques" and he later discovered that the same agent had also tortured Valladares.

"Anything that I and my friends might have experienced is nothing _ nothing _ compared with what the men in this room went through," McCain said.

McCain said all the right things about Cuba for this audience, where a half-dozen men talked politics in Spanish and smoked morning cigars before the senator arrived. McCain told them he wouldn't support lifting the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba until there were free elections, human rights and release of all political prisoners.

© 2007 The Associated Press