Mexican Diplomat: Time Running Out For NAFTA Negotiation as Presidential Election Nears

By Zenny Phuong | May 29, 2017 | 5:12pm EDT

( –  It will be a “tall order” for the three North American governments to completely renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) before Mexico’s presidential election next January, in the view of the country’s former ambassador to the U.S., Arturo Sarukhan.

“If we have a full-fledged negotiation on NAFTA in the midst of the presidential campaign, things are going to be much trickier,” he said during a panel discussion on U.S.-Mexico relationship, trade and security, at the Brookings Institution on Thursday.

On May 18, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer informed Congress in writing of President Trump’s intention to renegotiate the trade deal with Mexico and Canada.

Trump said during his presidential campaign that NAFTA was taking manufacturing jobs away from Americans. He was pushing to withdraw from the agreement altogether, but after phone exchanges with the two partners’ leaders changed his position.

Sarukhan, a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings, said although the campaign for the July 2018 election will not start until the beginning of next year, Mexico will have selected candidates by the end of 2017.

“As [the executive branch] of the Mexican government move into the sunset phase of the administration, the political wiggle room of the government is going to diminish month by month,” he said.

Peterson Institute for International Economics senior fellow Gary Hufbauer told the panel he would be surprised if the trade negotiation is completed by the end of the year.

Antonio Ortiz Mena, an Albright Stonebridge Group senior advisor, said he could not see how negotiations can continue when there are effectively “two presidents in Mexico” – a president in power and a president-elect. The difficulty, he said, is the lengthy change-over.

(Mexico has a long presidential transition and handover period, with the results only certified two months after election day, and a new president taking office five months after the country’s went to the polls.)

“This time, we really have a tight deadline,” Mena said, but added that he thought it could be achievable if all three countries “focus on modernizing rather than renegotiating NAFTA.”

Former Mexican ambassador to the U.S., Arturo Sarukhan (Photo: Department of Interior)

Speeding up the deal might be easier said than done due to the increasing tension between the U.S. and Mexico, however.

“We hadn’t seen something as bad as [the current tension] in these past 20 years until these last few months,” Sarukhan said. “Even though things are less dire than they were in the middle of February, the relationship is at a low point.”

Former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Earl Anthony Wayne, said the deterioration in the relationship shocked him because he had been working with Sarukhan and others for more than 20 years to improve it.

“And if you think about it, there are no [international] relationships that touch the daily lives of American citizens more than does the U.S.-Mexico relationship,” he said.

Wayne said there are currently 4.9 million U.S. jobs that are dependent on the bilateral relationship, directly or indirectly.

“So when we started having such a critical rhetoric, it’s really worrisome and not reflective of the reality of this relationship,” he said.

Mexico’s current ambassador in Washington, Geronimo Gutierrez, said he saw room for negotiation and felt confident that American companies value the co-operation between the two countries.

“In my view, knowing the Mexican line of thinking, it is very likely and very possible to have a better trade agreement,” he said.

Gutierrez said he was glad those who benefit from the relationship are becoming more willing to speak out.

“American farmers had really started saying, ‘What are we doing here? This is our third largest market in the world, we need this market.’  And I praise them for that,” he said.

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