July 12, 2018 / 10:05 PM / 4 months ago

Pompeo heads high-level U.S. delegation to meet Mexico's next leader

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and senior Trump administration officials will meet with Mexican President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Friday, hoping to make early strides on divisive issues like immigration, trade and security.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrives at Benito Juarez International airport in Mexico City, Mexico July 13, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

At a time of heightened tensions between the two neighbors, Pompeo will lead a high-level delegation composed of Jared Kushner, senior adviser and son-in-law to President Donald Trump, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. They aim to build on Trump’s phone call with Lopez Obrador on July 2, a senior State Department official said on Thursday.

“The whole goal of Secretary Pompeo’s trip is to advance that positive agenda and to work with the Mexican government across all of the issue areas where we can make progress on,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The delegation will also meet with Mexico’s current president, Enrique Pena Nieto, and Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray to discuss the transition of power, trade, migration and border issues, the official told reporters on a conference call. Lopez Obrador takes office on Dec. 1.

Relations between the United States and Mexico have been strained since Trump took office in January 2017, as he threatened to tear up the North American Free Trade Agreement and demanded that Mexico pay for a border wall to stem illegal immigration.

Mnuchin told Congress on Thursday that the renegotiation of Nafta was a big priority for the administration now that Mexico’s election was over. [nL1N1U812C]

The State Department official said Friday’s talks were about “the strength and importance of our ongoing cooperation” with Mexico.

Despite assurances of cooperation by the Trump administration, experts cautioned that Lopez Obrador and Trump are both nationalists, which could further strain ties.

“They both have strong populist instincts, the politics that drive them are different – one from the left, one from the right,” said Carlos Pascual, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico.

The headstrong and blunt-speaking Lopez Obrador would likely respond if Trump continues making disparaging comments, said Jason Marczak, director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.

“I don’t expect him to cave to U.S. demands,” Marczak said. “He is going to fight for the interests of Mexicans, for what works for Mexico.”

The United States, Canada and Mexico have been negotiating to revamp their 24-year-old trade pact since August, but talks have stalled over U.S. demands on autos and other issues.

The next round of talks is expected during the last week of July. [nL1N1U71XB]

The State Department official declined to say how much focus there will be on Nafta in Friday’s talks.

Lopez Obrador probably will not deviate much from the negotiation path that Pena Nieto has laid out, Antonio Ortiz-Mena, senior vice president at Albright Stonebridge Group and former Mexican diplomat involved in Nafta negotiation, said.

Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis; Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton and Roberta Rampton; Editing by Mary Milliken and Leslie Adler

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