MEXICO CITY — Mexican President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador says he wants to have a good relationship with President Donald Trump thats based on mutual respect. But hell be tested when it comes to dealing with the American president on immigration and efforts to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Trump, from the inception of his campaign, has criticized Mexico for benefiting from NAFTA, which he has called “the worst trade deal ever.” Coupled with stopping illegal migration, tearing up the trade pact is one of Trumps biggest rallying cries.
“It seems as if whenever Trump feels under pressure he reverts to the two most popular parts of his campaign for the base, which was: NAFTA is a bad deal, we have to get out and weve got to build a wall because Mexico is sending us horrible people,” Roberta Jacobson, who retired in May from her role as U.S. ambassador to Mexico, told POLITICO.
“That default position on those two items seems so constant that I dont know if he can change that,” Jacobson added.
Trumps first comments on López Obradors presidency were positive. A 30-minute phone call between the two men on Monday “included a lot of good conversation,” Trump told reporters on Monday. López Obrador described the tone of the call as “respectful.”
But potential fault lines in the relationship are already on display.
Trump said he believes López Obrador “is going to try and help us with the border.” But López Obrador, for his part, has repeatedly criticized Trumps push for a border wall — instead, saying that illegal migration could be better addressed with economic development programs that help lift Mexicans out of poverty.
“Those that want to leave and emigrate, let them do it by choice, not because of necessity,” López Obrador said in his victory speech at the historic Zócalo plaza in Mexico City on Sunday.
During the phone call, the firebrand former mayor of Mexico City proposed to Trump a large-scale project that would strengthen cooperation between North American and Central American countries. It would be a “comprehensive agreement; with development projects that generate jobs in Mexico, and with that, reduce migration and improve security,” López Obrador tweeted on Monday afternoon.
López Obrador, previously a critic of free trade, has recently spoken more positively about NAFTA and often said he would like to wrap up the 24-year-old trade pacts renegotiation. Hes also suggested he would be willing to walk away from it.
“Im going to set out for the deal to be maintained, but if thats not possible, it wont be terrible for Mexicans. Our country has many natural resources, many riches,” López Obrador said during the third Mexican presidential debate last month.
López Obrador will not take office until Dec. 1, but current Mexican President Enrique Peña Nietos administration has already specified that it will work with López Obradors transition team on the continued renegotiation talks.
Talks to renegotiate NAFTA have largely been deadlocked over the last month due to major differences on issues, such as labor, investor dispute settlement and rules over how much of a car must be made in the region to qualify for reduced tariffs.
Tensions have run even higher after Trump slapped tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from Mexico and Canada, who sell a combined $15 billion dollars of the metals to the U.S. each year. In response, Mexico and Canada have also pursued retaliatory tariffs that hit a long list of American consumer goods.
However, Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said on Friday that she expects the NAFTA talks to speed back up with the election of a new leader.
“After [Mexicos] elections, I am quite confident and I know that the U.S. and Mexico, all three countries, intend the day after those elections to continue our negotiations in an intensive way,” Freeland said.
Meanwhile, Trump doesnt seem to be in a hurry to get a deal signed.
“NAFTA, I could sign it tomorrow, but Im not happy with it,” Trump said in an interview with Fox Business on Sunday. “I want to wait until after the election. Youre going to have an election. I think itll be very interesting. I think its going to be fine.”
Ultimately, it may not matter what López Obrador thinks about NAFTA. The U.S. is refusing to back down on some proposals that Canada and Mexico have deemed non-starters, like the so-called sunset clause that would allow the deal to be terminated if all three countries dont agree to renew it after five years.
“The U.S. has frankly held things up. I dont think the problem is with Mexico, its with the U.S.,” said Michael Camuñez, a former assistant secretary of Commerce during the Obama administration and president of consulting firm Monarch Global Strategies.
“No Mexican government, regardless of the leader, would accept some of the [U.S.] proposals,” said Luis de la Calle, a Mexican former trade negotiator.
López Obrador may have five months to come up with a strategy — beyond demanding respect — for dealing with Trump, but hell be facing the same tough choices on trade and immigration as Peña Nieto, said Jorge Castañeda, a former Mexican foreign minister during Vicente Foxs presidency.
“Trump is going to be a headache,” Castañeda said.