MEXICO CITY: Washington’s top diplomat was to sit down on Friday (Saturday in Manila) 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 Peña 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.
Peña 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 Peña 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 modernized.”
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.
“The most immediate threat to our hemisphere are transnational criminal organizations, or TCOs,” Tillerson said. “In their pursuit of money and power, TCOs leave death and destruction in their wake.”
‘New imperial powers’
Tillerson also warned that China and Russia are assuming “alarming” roles in Latin America and urged regional powers to work with the US instead.
“Latin America doesn’t need new imperial powers that seek only to benefit their own people,” he said.
He also went on the offensive against the leftist government of Venezuela, once a rival center of influence for Latin American nations, now a political and economic basket case.
“The corrupt and hostile regime of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela clings to a false dream, an antiquated vision for the region that has already failed its citizens,” Tillerson said.
He noted that the United States, Canada and European Union have imposed economic sanctions targeting Maduro loyalists seen as profiteers or human rights abusers.
He called on Latin America to do the same. The continent’s major powers reject the regime, but are cautious about piling on more economic misery with Venezuela on the brink of chaos.
On Friday he is to meet Pena Nieto before heading to his next engagement at the Andean resort of Bariloche, Argentina, and then to Buenos Aires on Monday.
Before arriving back in Washington late on Wednesday, he is to visit Peru—host of an upcoming Summit of the Americas—as well as Colombia and Jamaica.