WASHINGTON (AP) — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will lead a Cabinet-level delegation to Mexico on Friday on the heels of a sea-change election there that could offer a chance for the neighbors to repair strained relations — or make them worse.
U.S.-Mexico ties have deteriorated significantly under President Donald Trump, who campaigned on building a border wall and who has repeatedly blamed Mexico for economic and social problems in the United States.
Most recently, tit-for-tat trade tariffs between Mexico and the U.S. amid tense negotiations over the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, have sparked fears of an all-out trade war. Trump has branded the free trade pact, which also includes Canada, as a job killer for Americans.
However, following the landslide victory of leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, tensions have eased. Both leaders made positive statements following a telephone call earlier this month; the wall was not mentioned. Lopez Obrador will replace President Enrique Pena Nieto in December.
Joining Pompeo on Friday will be Trump's son-in-law and White House adviser Jared Kushner, who has played a key role in maintaining relations with Mexico, in part because of his close ties to the foreign secretary of the current government, Luis Videgaray. Also in the delegation will be Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
The State Department said the visit is intended to demonstrate the strength and importance of U.S.-Mexico relations and the Trump administration's eagerness to work with the incoming government. The entire delegation will meet separately with Pena Nieto and Lopez Obrador and discuss ways to combat transnational criminal organizations, the opioid epidemic in the U.S., trade tensions and irregular migration.
Sharing a nearly 2,000-mile (3,200-kilometer) border, Mexico and the United States have traditionally coordinated closely on security and immigration. Mexico is also the United States' third-largest trading partner for goods, with the U.S. buying about 80 percent of Mexico's exports from automobiles to fruit, vegetables and beer.
One proposed plan is to declare Mexico a "safe third country," meaning people traveling through Mexico hoping to claim asylum in the U.S. would have to do so in Mexico instead, according to a Mexican official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media. However, the official said, the proposal has very little support in Mexico as it would burden the country with tens of thousands more asylum seekers a year, something the country lacks the resources to tackle.
When asked about the plan earlier this week, Lopez Obrador did not respond directly, saying only that immigration shouldn't involve "coercive measures."
Mexico's president-elect has said development, the renegotiation of NAFTA and immigration will be the main topics of discussion Friday. Lopez Obrador, who campaigned heavily on increasing support for Mexico's poor and fighting government corruption, has said encouraging development in Mexico would help solve immigration problems.
Despite positive statements from both sides, the upcoming transition of power in Mexico also has the potential to destabilize U.S.-Mexico relations if either leader takes aim at the other to appeal to his political base at home. They're unlikely partners as they occupy opposite ends of the political spectrum.
Lopez Obrador has already announced that his government will cancel a pending purchase of U.S. helicopters as an example of cost-cutting measures. Initially the sale was promoted by the State Department as a move that would help a strategic partner fight against criminal organizations.
And November midterm elections in the U.S. bring the possibility that Trump could return to the rhetoric of his presidential campaign that was derogatory toward Mexico.
Associated Press writer Mark Stevenson contributed from Mexico City.