In mid-December, uncertainty about how the incoming US administration would advance the country’s relationship with Latin America seemed to be at its peak. Would common sense prevail, leaving rhetoric to give way to a spirit of cooperation? Or would Donald Trump seek to deliver on the worst of his campaign promises, ditching the North American Free Trade Agreement and imposing a 35% tariff on imports from Mexico?
Amid the heightened ambiguity, news emerged that left observers even more confused: Trump had dined with Carlos Slim.
Under other circumstances, two wealthy businessmen meeting for dinner might seem unremarkable. But given Trump’s vitriol towards Mexico on the campaign trail, the news felt more like finding a mismatched piece of a jigsaw puzzle.
Did Trump meet Slim with a business agenda in mind? What about Slim: did he present himself as a representative of Mexico, or was he on a commercial mission? Perhaps it doesn’t matter: perhaps it should be taken as a step forward that Trump is at least speaking with someone from Mexico — as ridiculous as that would sound under almost any other circumstance.
The nebulousness of US trade and foreign policy under the new administration, and the extent to which the political goalposts have been changed by the US election, cannot be overstated. That being said, regardless of what was discussed at Mar-a-Lago, Mexico should hope for more such conversations.
With NAFTA under a cloud, the winners of the agreement should be making their case as loudly as possible to the new US leadership. That includes parties on both sides of the border. Part of the unpredictability of Trump’s leadership stems from his capriciousness. The President-elect has ill-defined policy — and at least some of it appears to be defined on the fly.
In Canada, Mexico and the US, companies and individuals have benefitted from the increased flow of goods and services across the two international borders. They stand to lose if NAFTA is unravelled. Now is the time for them to shout about it to the incoming administration.
Most observers expect the treaty to be renegotiated, even just to a minimal degree. In that case, Mexico should have two priorities.
It should bring its best team to the table. Freer trade has not worked for everyone: that includes Mexicans as well as many US citizens that voted for Trump. If the deal is renegotiated, Mexico should work hard to make it a better treaty for Mexicans.
At the same time, speed will be key. The longer the negotiations drag on, the longer that business decisions and investment will be put on hold. For everyone’s sake, the uncertainty should be put to bed as soon as possible. LF