Analysis

Can Mexico expect less-hostile days after this week's visit by two Trump secretaries?

Seldom has the seemingly routine visit of a pair of U.S. Cabinet secretaries generated so much anguish and disquiet to the host country, in this case, Mexico.

And rarely has the reaction been so uncertain that the scripted finale — a meeting with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto on Thursday — was thrown into  doubt.

Mexico’s economy minister, Ildefonso Guajardo, suggested publicly that the session with the president was contingent on the tenor of talks between the U.S. visitors and their Mexican counterparts. Some opposition lawmakers called for the envoys to be snubbed.

Ultimately, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Homeland Security John F. Kelly did meet this week with high-ranking Mexican authorities, including Peña Nieto, whose office issued a statement lauding the “professionalism and constructive will” of the two U.S Cabinet members.

Even that compliment appeared to be a bit of a backhanded swipe at the U.S. envoys’ boss, President Trump, whose presence seemed to hover over the two-day visit.

At the moment, “professional” and “constructive” are not the words that emerge when officials here talk about Trump, who has enraged Mexicans across the political and economic spectrum with his incendiary broadsides on trade, immigration and other issues.

But the visit by the Cabinet secretaries appeared to have given Mexico’s beleaguered leadership some reason to believe that less-hostile days may be ahead in relations with the giant and sometimes capricious neighbor to the north.

In little more than a month since Trump was inaugurated, the long-stable relationship between two neighboring nations that share multiple security, economic and other interests — along with a 2,000-mile-long border — has been thrown into disarray. Mexico’s leadership is deeply perturbed and doesn’t quite know how to react to what appear to be new rules from Washington on how to get along. 

Even as the two envoys sought to calm Mexico’s collectively bruised psyche, Trump was in the news from the White House, describing an ongoing immigration crackdown as a “military operation” and telling a group of business executives: “We’re getting really bad dudes out of this country, and at a rate that nobody’s ever seen before.”

The comments recalled Trump’s reported reference in a telephone call with the Mexican president to “bad hombres”— a phrase that has become a dark-humor meme here,  a distillation of the current dismal state of U.S.-Mexico relations.

At a joint news conference Thursday with Tillerson and Mexican officials, Kelly — a retired Marine general — quickly shot down Trump’s martial allusion.

“We seek no use of military force in immigration operations,” declared Kelly, who also said there would be no mass deportations.  “We’ll approach this operation systematically, in a results-oriented way, in an operational way, and in a human-dignity way.”

In stark contrast to Trump, Kelly and Tillerson clearly endeavored in public comments not to offend Mexican authorities.

Privately, Mexican officials, executives and others have been voicing the hope that binational talks on a range of issues such as trade could produce outcomes less harsh for Mexico than Trump’s rhetoric suggests. The measured and bombast-free remarks of the two U.S. officials seem likely to bolster that expectation.

The U.S. approach is a kind of diplomatic twist of the old good-cop, bad-cop technique. But the mixed messages may leave foreign leaders in Mexico and elsewhere wondering: Is it Trump or his subordinates orchestrating the new relationship?

Mexican leaders have come under withering criticism at home for not taking a stronger stance against what are widely viewed in the country as Trump’s bullying tactics and scapegoating of Mexico and Mexicans. In fact, Mexico has considerable leverage in terms of cross-border commerce and cooperation with Washington on security, immigration and other matters.

Peña Nieto, who is approaching the last year of his six-year term with near-record low approval ratings, is feeling the pressure. His only recent bounce in the polls came when he scrapped a scheduled meeting with Trump in Washington amid Trump’s insistence that Mexico pay for a border wall.

The U.S. emissaries had clearly been briefed on the sensitivity of the moment. They appeared to go out of their way to be unlike Trump.

In his statement, Tillerson even reached for a feel-good narrative, describing a relationship “filled with vibrant colors” that “from time to time will have differences.”  The understatement escaped no one.

Not even mentioned at the concluding joint news conference — which did not allow for questions from assembled journalists — were the two most provocative issues: the border wall and Trump’s call for tariffs of 20% or more on goods imported from Mexico. Both sides seemed more than content not to wander down those treacherous roads.

Ultimately, little concrete was accomplished — as is often the case during such diplomatic jaunts — beyond vague promises to continue cooperation and dialogue on a host of issues. Mexican officials seemed to take some solace in the fact that the events came off in an amicable fashion, with a sense of normalcy and predictability gradually easing the overriding tension and uncertainty.

Nevertheless, Mexico’s foreign minister, Luis Videgaray, was stern-faced as he spoke of the two countries like they were a quarrelsome couple trying to cobble back together a broken marriage.

“It will be a long road … but today we have made a step in the right direction,” said Videgaray, who had earlier reportedly said in private that Mexico was engaged in a long-term “battle” and had identified retaliatory measures against the United States should a trade war erupt. 

“To overcome the grievances, to overcome the negative feelings that undoubtedly are prevalent today, we will need deeds more than words — and today we have begun,” he said.

Cecilia Sanchez of the Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.

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