EL PASO – Former President of Mexico Ernesto Zedillo during a visit to the border told business leaders and others gathered for a U.S.-Mexico summit that he’s worried about current relations, but “things can change if people who are affected by government policies speak out.”
Zedillo, a native of the Mexican border city Mexicali, gave the keynote address Wednesday at the summit organized by the Borderplex Alliance, a non-profit organization promoting economic development in the borderland region of New Mexico, Texas and Chihuahua.
A lot of the discussions focused on concerns about renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement as well the rocky U.S.-Mexico relationship under the Trump administration. Zedillo, who called himself “a man of the border,” helped implement NAFTA during his presidency from 1994-2000.
He agrees it is time to update the nearly 25-year-old trade pact but is concerned current negotiations will lead to a new NAFTA “that is not only useless, but destructive of trade and investment.” He was critical of a proposal by the Trump administration to do away with protections of investments by companies in Mexico or Canada.
“Whether or not we get a new NAFTA that benefits all three countries depend on one man, and that’s our president,” said former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Jim Jones who kicked off the daylong summit.
President Trump has threatened to scrap NAFTA if he doesn’t get what he wants for the U.S., but he recently tweeted that a deal with Mexico is “moving along nicely.” Canada has recently been shut out of the process, as President Trump’s relationship with the Canadian prime minister has deteriorated.
Jones, who served as ambassador from 1993 to 1997, also discussed his view of Mexico’s President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a man he met decades ago. Rather than a “far left winger,” Jones said Lopez Obrador had matured into a pragmatic and skilled political strategist.
“We’ve already seen his maturity in responding to some of the things (Trump) has said about Mexico,” said Jones.
In a tweet President Trump wrote, “New President of Mexico has been an absolute gentleman.”
Both men ran as populist candidates vowing to put their countries first and focus on workers who have felt left behind by past administrations, including those hurt by NAFTA. In Mexico, “fifty percent of them are still poor and pissed off and so they voted for the guy who said he would upset the system,” said Tony Payan, director of the Mexico Institute at the Baker Institute.
“The U.S. Mexico relationship is larger than those two individuals,” said U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas.
Hurd said it’s not just whether the leaders of the U.S., Mexico and Canada sign a renegotiated trade agreement, but whether Congress approves the pact. That could be affected by the results of the mid-term elections this fall.
Trade in general and NAFTA in particular are hot button issues on the campaign trail.
“NAFTA is the Pancho Villa of all trade treaties,” said Tom Fullerton, professor and Trade in the Americas chair at the University of Texas-El Paso.
Fullerton said just as Pancho Villa was often accused of murders and mayhem in this border region, even years after he was dead, NAFTA is now blamed for a myriad of economic problems in the U.S.
More than 500 people registered to attend the border summit which included a roundtable with mayors of Las Cruces, El Paso, Ciudad Juarez, and Sunland Park.
“If we can get more people outside our region to come down and experience this (border), I know those are the people who are going to advocate for us in the future,” said Sunland Park Mayor Javier Perea.