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U.S. Delegation and Mexico’s Next President Aim to Reset Relations

MEXICO CITY — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo led a high-level Cabinet delegation to Mexico City on Friday to gauge how Mexico’s president-elect intends to reset the fractious relationship between the two countries.

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Elisabeth Malkin
, New York Times

MEXICO CITY — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo led a high-level Cabinet delegation to Mexico City on Friday to gauge how Mexico’s president-elect intends to reset the fractious relationship between the two countries.

The president-elect, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a leftist who has pledged to fight corruption and tackle Mexico’s entrenched poverty, was ready for the delegation. He handed Pompeo a series of proposals on trade, development, security and migration — the issues that are at the heart of the relationship and the source of much of the friction.

Despite the tensions, which have grown under President Donald Trump, Marcelo Ebrard, who will be the next foreign minister, said he had “reasonable optimism” that Mexico would find “bases for understanding” to improve the relationship.

“The foundation for understanding is development and mutual respect,” Ebrard said, adding that the transition team would provide more details on the proposals once Trump responded, perhaps as early as next week.

But there were hints at a shift in priorities. Ebrard said that the proposals included a significant plan to promote development in Central America, the source of most migrants now crossing the border into the United States.

Ebrard also warned that the new government expected to make “important changes” in its security policy, where Washington’s interest is focused on stemming the flow of drugs across the southern border.

The delegation also met with President Enrique Peña Nieto and Luis Videgaray, the foreign minister.

Pompeo said little about development but emphasized one of Trump’s touchstone themes, a stronger border with Mexico. “Americans must be able to see improvements that better protect our national sovereignty and the safety of our local communities,” he said in a statement at the end of his trip.

Pompeo’s delegation also included Kirstjen Nielsen, the secretary of homeland security; Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary; and Jared Kushner, Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law.

The composition of the American delegation reflected the issues driving the relations between the United States and Mexico, which have become even more fraught as Trump has criticized Mexico to rally his own supporters, calling Mexican immigrants criminals as well as threatening to scrap the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The Trump administration, though, now must contend with López Obrador, an enormously popular politician who won a landslide victory and a broad mandate. That will give the new government leverage in its dealings with the United States that the departing Peña Nieto, who is deeply unpopular, does not have.

López Obrador has said Mexico will not be a “piñata” for any other country, but he has struck a positive tone after speaking with Trump by telephone and told reporters that he had invited the president to his Dec. 1 inauguration.

During a radio interview on Monday, Ebrard acknowledged the insults from the Trump administration but said that there was space to work with Washington.

“The treatment we have received has been terrible,” said Ebrard, who moved to the United States in 2016 to work with Latino get-out-the-vote groups supporting Hillary Clinton during the presidential campaign.

“What we have to look for now are the areas of understanding that there might be,” said Ebrard, who succeeded López Obrador as mayor of Mexico City. “The easiest thing in foreign policy is to magnify the conflict. The most complex is to see where the areas of understanding might be.”

López Obrador is likely to reset the Mexican approach to working with the United States on improving security and controlling migration, particularly from Central America.

He has insisted that the best way to deal with both concerns is to promote economic development, both in the poorer areas of Mexico and in Central America. The Trump administration has paid lip service to the idea but offered nothing concrete, focusing instead on enforcement.

“López Obrador is right to talk about cooperation to confront the economic and security driver of Central American transmigration through Mexico,” Arturo Sarukhán, a former Mexican ambassador to Washington, wrote in an email.

“But whether that means that an America First president is willing to significantly invest diplomatically and financially in Central America in ways López Obrador may have been led to believe are possible, is an altogether different proposition,” Sarukhán said.

Rafael Fernández de Castro, director for the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California, San Diego, said the amicable gestures between Trump and López Obrador were surprising. They could, though, lay the groundwork for a broad agreement on several interlocking issues, he said.

The first is a successful renegotiation of NAFTA, which has been stalled over demands from Washington that neither Canada nor Mexico would accept. López Obrador’s advisers say they will follow the negotiating strategy of the current government.

The second is a grand plan to invest in Central America and southern Mexico to tackle the underlying causes of migration, Fernández de Castro said.

The third issue is the demand from Washington for Mexico to accept an agreement to receive Central American asylum-seekers. Mexico would need progress on the first two to respond on the third issue, Fernández de Castro said.

“If they could align these three things, we could be talking about a new relationship,” he said. “There are a lot of high stakes and a lot of uncertainty because Trump is mercurial.”

Mark Feierstein, a senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs on the National Security Council during the Obama administration, said the Trump team might find common ground with the incoming Mexican government on multiple issues, especially on attacking the root cause of crime.

“If they want a presentation that will resonate, they need to emphasize these points,” Feierstein said.

But Sarukhán, the former ambassador, warned that Trump was unlikely to drop his anti-Mexico rhetoric.

“How Trump chooses to talk about Mexico and respond to his soon-to-be Mexican counterpart in the coming months will be determinant in whether the bilateral relationship can be reset or not,” Sarukhán said. “Given what we have seen from this U.S. president, I would not hold my breath.”

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