Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Preparing to Meet Trump, Mexican Leader Seeks Common Ground










Photo

President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico seemed to adapt President Trump’s “America first” message to his own purposes in a speech on Monday. Credit Ronaldo Schemidt/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

MEXICO CITY — In his first major speech since the change of administrations in the United States, President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico promised a robust dialogue with President Trump based on shared interests and mutual respect, but insisted that Mexico’s sovereignty — and the protection of its citizens — would be the guiding forces for his government.

The two leaders are preparing to meet next week, and Mr. Peña Nieto’s speech outlined a broad platform that Mexico hopes to pursue in the face of what many have seen as a hostile stance from the new American president.

Mr. Peña Nieto stressed that any reassessment of the bilateral relationship or renegotiation of decades-old accords, including the North American Free Trade Agreement, would be part of a broader package. Negotiations would include more than just trade, he said; they would also encompass migration and security, two issues where Mexico plays a strategic role for the United States.

“We will bring to the table all themes,” he said. “Trade, yes, but also migration and the themes of security, including border security, terrorist threats and the traffic of illegal drugs, arms and money.”

The address was the most comprehensive explanation of Mexico’s foreign policy aspirations in recent months. The government remained relatively quiet during Mr. Trump’s political ascendancy, and even after his election, adopting a nonaggressive approach in the face of the fear and anxiety permeating the nation. On Monday, Mr. Peña Nieto, while offering a fulsome defense of Mexico’s sovereignty, maintained that engagement was the answer.

The solution is neither confrontation nor submission,” he said. “The solution is dialogue and negotiation.”

At the same time, there was no mistaking the nationalist tones woven into his speech. That was perhaps the one element of the address that did align with Mr. Trump’s vision for America, as the Mexican president seemed to borrow the “America first” message for his own purposes.

With his government shaken by corruption scandals, escalating violence and rising gasoline prices, Mr. Peña Nieto has the lowest popularity of any president in decades. Some analysts feel that the threat posed by Mr. Trump could be a means to bolster the poor standing of Mr. Peña Nieto’s party while offering Mexicans a message of unity sorely lacking in recent years.

“We are a sovereign nation, and we will act as such,” Mr. Peña Nieto said. “The exercise of sovereignty implies that, in the process of negotiation, our only interest is that of Mexico and those of Mexicans.” He made clear that that pledge extended to Mexicans living in the United States.
But he stopped short of full-blown nationalism. He described a Mexican future categorically different from the one outlined by Mr. Trump for the United States in his inaugural address on Friday. Where America would reassess its adherence to free markets and its station as a guardian of the liberal democratic order, Mexico would “reaffirm itself as a nation open to the world, that participates in global markets with high-value goods and services.”

Where Mr. Trump has questioned the benefits of the North American Free Trade Agreement, blaming it for the loss of jobs in the United States to the benefit of Mexico, Mr. Peña Nieto defended the pact. In the face of calls for the agreement to be upended, he argued that the ties between the United States, Mexico and Canada should deepen. Telecommunications, energy and electronic trade should be incorporated into any new agreement, he said.

At the White House on Monday, Mr. Trump’s aides said he would move quickly to renegotiate the agreement.

Mr. Peña Nieto and his aides have been preparing for months to deal with the free trade issue. Even as some have questioned Nafta’s benefits to Mexico, where salaries are stagnant and the poverty rate has hardly moved, the government has consistently defended the accord. But it has chosen a strategy of negotiation that would both allow some changes and ask for some of its own — and tie those changes to broader negotiations on security and migration as a way to give Mexico some leverage in the debate.

That leverage exists in Mexico’s increased policing of its southern border, which serves as a first line of defense against both migrants headed to the United States and terrorist threats.
Similarly, Mexico has long complained about the flow of guns and money that enter the country from the north. About 70 percent of the firearms seized in Mexico from 2009 to 2014 were traced back to the United States, according to a 2016 report from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, amounting to more than 73,000 guns.

The speech was notable for what it said about the evolving relationship between Mexico and the United States, which have long been wary neighbors but in recent decades have moved past animosities toward a vision for a more shared future. Much of that was predicated on open borders and trade, as well as on a mutual interest in preventing transborder criminal enterprises like drug cartels. How that will be carried out in the future is in question.

And in response to Mr. Trump’s biggest campaign promise, to build a wall to halt the flow of people and drugs from Mexico to the United States, Mr. Peña Nieto renewed his promise to keep Mexico open to the world, and to the United States.

“Mexico does not believe in walls,” Mr. Peña Nieto said in his address. “Our country believes in bridges.”


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