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Tough task for Tillerson in Mexico, south of Trump's wall

Sunday, February 04, 2018

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MEXICO CITY, Mexico (AFP) -- Washington's top diplomat held talks Friday with top officials of the country that President Donald Trump has perhaps disparaged more than any other, the United States' neighbour Mexico.

Kicking off his first Latin American tour since being named secretary of state, former oilman Rex Tillerson met with his Mexican counterpart and was later due to talk trade, crime and immigration with President Enrique Pena Nieto.

Before setting off on his trip, Tillerson laid out a vision of the United States and Latin America -- the “democratic hemisphere” -- working together to build a prosperous future.

But first he will have to overcome the aftermath of Trump's aggressive brand of diplomacy.

Trump has called the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) “perhaps the worst deal in the history of the world,” has said immigrants from across the southern border bring crime, and he remains determined to build a frontier wall.

On some positions, Trump has softened his rhetoric since his inauguration a year ago, but in this week's State of the Union address he spoke more about cross-border crime and immigration than any other foreign policy topic.

Pena Nieto meanwhile is under domestic pressure not to give up too much ground to his pushy northern neighbour, even though Mexico and Canada are keen to save NAFTA from Trump's threat to rip it up and start anew.

Tillerson, in Latin America to build support for a tough stance against Venezuela's beleaguered government, will make the case for closer economic ties and warn of Chinese encroachment, though he is not the US trade representative and could do without the row.

But, as he sat down on Friday for two- and three-way talks with his Mexican and Canadian counterparts, Luis Videgaray and Chrystia Freeland, the trade deal was in the foreground.

Tillerson has adopted an optimistic approach, whatever Trump's rhetoric.

“I'm a Texan, former energy executive, and I'm also a rancher. I understand how important NAFTA is for our economy and that of the continent,” Tillerson told students at his alma mater, the University of Texas, on Thursday before flying south.

“But it should come as no surprise that an agreement put in place 30 years ago, before the advent of the digital age and the digital economy, before China's rise as the world's second largest economy, that NAFTA would need to be modernised.”

Another round of NAFTA talks is scheduled for next month, and Canada and Mexico hope a deal can be salvaged.

Tillerson was also due to discuss security and immigration with top Mexican officials, echoing Trump's warning of the need to fight violent drug cartels.

After Mexico, Tillerson -- who is often left with the task of explaining why Trump's “America First” slogan does not mean “America Alone” -- is set to travel on to Argentina, Peru, Colombia and Jamaica, touting his vision of deeper cooperation.

NEW IMPERIAL POWERS

In his pre-tour speech, Tillerson also warned that China and Russia are assuming “alarming” roles in Latin America, and urged regional powers to work with the United States instead.

“Latin America doesn't need new imperial powers that seek only to benefit their own people,” he said in Texas.

He also went on the offensive against the leftist government of Venezuela, once a rival centre of influence for Latin American nations, now a political and economic basket case.

“The corrupt and hostile regime of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela clings to a false dream, an antiquated vision for the region that has already failed its citizens,” Tillerson said.

He noted that the United States, Canada and the European Union have imposed economic sanctions targeting Maduro loyalists seen as profiteers or human rights abusers.

He called on Latin America to do the same. The continent's major powers reject the regime, but are cautious about piling on more economic misery, with Venezuela on the brink of chaos.

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