Mexico City: Washington’s top diplomat was to sit down today with the leader of the country that President Donald Trump has perhaps disparaged more than any other, the United States’ neighbor Mexico.
As he confronts the first stage on his first Latin American tour since being named secretary of state, former oilman Rex Tillerson will talk trade, crime and immigration with President Enrique Pena Nieto.
Before setting off, Tillerson laid out a vision of the US and Latin America — the “democratic hemisphere” — working together to build a prosperous future, but first he will have to overcome the aftermath of Trump’s aggressive brand of diplomacy.
Trump has called the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) “perhaps the worst deal in the history of the world,” has said immigrants from across the southern border bring crime with them and remains determined to build a frontier wall.
On some positions, Trump has softened his rhetoric since his inauguration a year ago, but in this week’s State of the Union address he spoke more about cross-border crime and immigration than any other foreign policy topic.
Pena Nieto meanwhile is under pressure at home not to give up too much ground to his pushy northern neighbor, even though Mexico and Canada are keen to save NAFTA from Trump’s threat to rip it up and start anew.
Tillerson, in Latin America to build support for a tough stance against Venezuela’s beleaguered government and make the case for closer economic ties and warn of Chinese encroachment, is not the US trade representative and could do without the row.
But, when he sits down on Friday with Pena Nieto and his Canadian counterpart Chrystia Freeland the trade deal will be in the foreground of their agenda, and he has adopted an optimistic approach, whatever Trump’s rhetoric.
“I’m a Texan, former energy executive, and I’m also a rancher. I understand how important NAFTA is for our economy and that of the continent,” Tillerson told students at his alma mater, the University of Texas, on Thursday before flying south.
“But it should come as no surprise that an agreement put into place 30 years ago, before the advent of the digital age and the digital economy, before China’s rise as the world’s second largest economy, that NAFTA would need to be modernised.”
Another round of talks is scheduled for next month and Canada and Mexico hope a deal can be salvaged. Mexico’s foreign minister Luis Videgaray also met Freeland on Thursday before having dinner with Tillerson, ahead of Friday’s presidential talks.
After Mexico, Tillerson — who is often left with the task of explaining why Trump’s “America First” slogan does not mean “America Alone” — was to travel on to Argentina, Peru, Colombia and Jamaica, touting his vision of deeper cooperation.
“We share an interwoven history and chronology. Our nations still reflect the New World optimism of limitless discovery,” he said.
“And importantly, we share democratic values, values that are the core of what we believe, regardless of the color of our passport.”
In Mexico City, Tillerson was also due to discuss security and immigration with top officials, and he echoed Trump’s warning of the need to fight violent drug cartels. (PTI)