MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Billionaire Carlos Slim said on Friday that Mexico should not fear Donald Trump, seeing opportunities for his country in the U.S. president’s economic policies, and praising Mexicans for uniting behind their government in talks with the northern neighbor.
In a rare news conference, the telecommunications and construction mogul called Trump a negotiator, “not Terminator” and said his repeated attacks on Mexico had united the country, giving President Enrique Pena Nieto “strength” in trade and border security talks.
“This is the most surprising example of national unity that I’ve had the pleasure of seeing in my life,” said Slim, who turns 77 on Saturday. He compared Mexicans’ response to that when a devastating earthquake that hit Mexico City in 1985. “We have to back the president of Mexico so he defends our national interests.”
Slim spoke to reporters after Pena Nieto on Thursday canceled a planned Washington summit with Trump following a tweet by the American that he should stay away unless Mexico agreed to pay for a border wall. Aiming to cool tensions, the two presidents spoke for an hour by phone on Friday, and the battered peso currency strengthened.
Trump’s threats to impose steep tariffs on Mexican products have ravaged the peso and spread worries about the economy, which is heavily dependent on the U.S. market.
However, Slim, who spoke out against his fellow billionaire during the U.S. election campaign but had dinner with him after the Nov. 8 victory at the polls, said Trump’s policies aimed at growing the U.S. economy would boost Mexico’s growth as well as provide jobs for Mexican laborers living north of the border.
“The circumstances in the United States are very favorable for Mexico,” Slim said, adding that he has not had any communication with Trump’s team since the December dinner.
“It wasn’t a romance,” he joked about the meeting.
Referring repeatedly to Trump’s books and other writings, Slim argued that people should not be surprised at Trump’s actions because it is all in his book “Great Again: How to Fix Our Crippled America,” which Slim said he had not finished reading.
“He’s a great negotiator,” Slim said.
He said businesses should not be too worried if Trump’s policies led to the collapse of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) underpinning Mexico’s economy, saying the country could fall back on World Trade Organization tariffs.
He said Mexican workers in the United States would benefit from Trump’s planned infrastructure push, but warned that U.S. protectionism and other policies could hurt American consumers.
“Among these changes is a return to the past, what a dear friend called ‘regressive utopias’,” he said, calling on the United States to focus on advanced manufacturing.
Asked about Trump’s plan to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, Slim said the best barrier to illegal immigration would be investment that created opportunities and jobs in Mexico.
Before the highly-anticipated news conference, speculation had been growing about whether Slim might try to run for president in 2018, but he poured cold water on that talk.
“I think I can do more on the business side,” he said.
Slim’s largest companies do not have much obvious exposure to any border tax Trump might impose on Mexican imports.
His high-profile holding in the New York Times Co, made him a target during the U.S. campaign, when Trump accused him of using the newspaper to try to help Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton. Slim’s shares have limited voting rights.
Slim on Friday said he had been selling New York Times stock, but his son-in-law later said this was not correct.
At the conference he was flanked by two of his sons, Carlos and Marco Antonio, and his son-in-law, Arturo Elias, with other family members watching. Most of the Slim family’s wealth comes from Latin America-focused telecoms giant America Movil.
America Movil does have a substantial U.S. business called TracFone which sells prepaid phone plans to customers and rents the networks of big operators.
His next largest companies are retail and industrial conglomerate Grupo Carso and Mexico-focused bank Grupo Financiero Inbursa.
Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Andrew Hay and Jonathan Oatis