US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) and US Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen disembark from their plane in Mexico City
US President Donald Trump sent a team of top officials to Mexico on Friday to meet with President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, an anti-establishment leftist who has been elected at a low point in relations between the neighbors.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is leading the high-level delegation, which also includes Trump’s son-in-law and senior aide Jared Kushner, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
All issues in the relationship are on the table, including trade, migration, security and the border, a senior State Department official said Thursday in a background briefing on the trip.
The one-day visit includes meetings with outgoing Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, who hands power to Lopez Obrador on December 1, and Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray.
The State Department official described the trip as a “testament to the importance the administration and the United States place on the bilateral relationship.”
But many thorny issues could make for a tough visit.
The US Homeland Security Department said Nielsen would raise the sensitive subject of Central American migrants who cross Mexico to reach the United States, insisting on a “shared responsibility” to stem migrant flows and keep them from reaching the US.
Pena Nieto had his own demands on the issue.
The Mexican president “expressed his concern over the policy of separating migrant families… (and) asked the Secretary of State to ensure that families separated at the border are quickly reunited,” his office said after a private meeting with the American delegation.
But Pena Nieto sought common ground on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the two countries and Canada.
He said both sides had agreed to continue working “constructively” to renegotiate the 1994 deal, adding Mexico was ready to conclude it “as soon as possible.”
– Putting Trump ‘in his place’? –
US-Mexican relations have been strained since Trump won the White House in 2016 after a campaign laced with anti-Mexican insults, attacks on NAFTA and vows to make Mexico pay for a wall on the common border.
The wall on the US-Mexico border in San Ysidro, California — Donald Trump has vowed to make Mexico pay for a wall along the entire length of the frontier
Since then, US tariffs on Mexican steel and aluminum, Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy on undocumented immigrants, and Pena Nieto’s two abrupt cancellations of visits to Washington have only added to the tension.
Lopez Obrador, widely known as “AMLO,” pledged during the campaign to “put (Trump) in his place.”
But both men say they had a positive phone call the day after Mexico’s July 1 election, and Lopez Obrador has invited Trump to his inauguration.
Lopez Obrador, 64, won the polls in a landslide, with over 53 percent of the vote — more than 30 points clear of his nearest rival.
Promising a change in direction, he was swept to office by a wave of outrage with corruption and brutal violence driven by Mexico’s powerful drug cartels.
Despite their ideological differences, some commentators have drawn parallels between Trump and Lopez Obrador: both are free trade skeptics with populist tendencies who mobilized a disgruntled base with anti-establishment campaigns.
Trump has even reportedly taken to calling Lopez Obrador “Juan Trump” in private.
– Touchy issues –
Pompeo’s delegation held a closed-door meeting with Lopez Obrador at his offices, in an aging house with little security in Mexico City’s trendy Roma neighborhood.
There was a heavier-than-usual security cordon, with swarms of waiting journalists kept at bay, along with a handful of anti-Trump protesters.
The meeting was attended by Lopez Obrador’s future ministers of finance, economy and security, as well as his choice to lead the NAFTA negotiations.
Also at the meeting was Lopez Obrador’s pick for foreign minister, former Mexico City mayor Marcelo Ebrard.
In a potential sore spot for the US administration, Ebrard worked on Latino get-out-the-vote campaigns on behalf of Trump’s 2016 election rival Hillary Clinton.
But Lopez Obrador’s arrival gives both countries a chance to turn a page on their recent acrimony, said Carin Zissis, a Mexico specialist at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas.
Pompeo’s visit “gives them the chance to take this moment when there’s a chance for change and revisit the relationship,” she said.
However, she added, “we all know that the Trump administration is unpredictable… All it takes is an angry tweet at 6:00 in the morning, and everything appears to be undone.”
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