Thursday, February 2, 2017

Reported U.S. threats to send troops into Mexico cause stir, denied (Feb. 2, 2017)

Media reports suggest last week's phone conversation between Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and his U.S. counterpart, Donald Trump, was fairly hostile. Though officials on both sides, who portrayed the call as a cooling off of diplomatic tensions that ran high last week, say it was productive and that media reports are incorrect. 

Trump reportedly threatened (offered?) to send U.S. troops to stop "bad hombres" in Mexico, according to a transcript of the conversation obtained by the Associated Press. "We don't need Mexico," Trump told Peña Nieto, according to Mexican journalist Dolia Estévez on Proyecto Puente.

The "bad guys" in the conversation refer to drug cartels, according to Estévez. "It was a very offensive conversation in which Trump humiliated Peña Nieto," Estévez told Aristegui Noticias.

A version of last week's call obtained by CNN from Peña Nieto paints a softer picture, with Trump offering assistance against "tough hombres" in Mexico. "We are willing to help with that big-league, but they have be knocked out and you have not done a good job knocking them out," said Trump in that version of the transcript.

The AP version is based on an internal readout of the conversation, according to CNN, and the details have been denied by officials in both governments, who said the conversation was productive. ""I know it with absolute certainty, there was no threat," Peña Nieto spokesman Eduardo Sanchez said, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The remarks were "part of a discussion about how the United States and Mexico could work collaboratively to combat drug cartels and other criminal elements, and make the border more secure," the White House told the Associated Press.

But talk of U.S. troops in Mexico have stirred up strong passions among Mexican citizens, reports the Guardian. If true, the threat "revives a venerable tradition of gringo intimidation and humiliation which Mexico thought had passed into history," writes Rory Carroll, also in the Guardian.

The AP emphasizes that the tone of the conversation shows that Trump "is using the same bravado with world leaders that he used to rally crowds on the campaign trail."

Mexico's government formally kicked off a three month period to prepare a negotiating position for a NAFTA renegotiation. The U.S. is expected to embark on a parallel process, reports the Wall Street Journal. Mexico's economy ministry will coordinate talks, with the participation of the foreign relations ministry and the country's senate.

The announcement represents an improvement of sorts in the bilateral relationship, after a Twitter spat between Presidents Enrique Peña Nieto and Donald Trump last week led to a cancelled meeting between the two and threats of a 20 percent tariff on Mexican products entering the U.S., according to the New York Times. (See last Friday's post.) Talks are expected to begin in May.

Mexico's is showing willingness to renegotiate the 23-year-old pact, but not to give up on a commitment towards free trade and certainly not to pay for a wall on the border with the U.S., explains the WSJ.

The free flow of remittances is another unshakeable Mexican position, said officials. Mexicans living abroad sent home a record amount of remittances last year, reports the Wall Street Journal separately. Ironically, the increase was pushed, in part, by the weakening of the peso, which was related to Trump's election. During the campaign Trump suggested taxing remittances as a way of paying for the polemic border wall. 

Animal Político has a piece on the Mexican municipalities that depend the most on remittances.

And while Trump paints NAFTA as more beneficial for Mexicans, the reality is that "the vast majority of academic studies have concluded that the North American Free Trade Agreement, as well as being a clear positive for Mexico, has also benefited the US. American manufacturing output has increased more than 80 per cent over the past three decades and the loss of jobs is more due to automation than trade," reports the Financial Times.

Mexican officials met with U.S. military representatives in southern Mexico to discuss security initiatives, especially Mexico's commitment to securing its southern border against undocumented migrants, reports Reuters. Videgaray was not present, according to Reuters' sources, though Estévez told Aristegui Noticias that he was.

New York Times op-ed by Ioan Grillo compares the U.S. position regarding the wall to cartel extortion of law-abiding citizens. "The wall itself will be largely ineffective — most likely a fence that smugglers will climb over, tunnel under and drill through. If the United States wants to pour billions into such a structure, it can. But it is patently outrageous to force a neighboring country to pay for your own infrastructure." Perhaps humiliation is in fact the point, hypothesizes Grillo. "Shakedowns are cemented through violence. Behind Mr. Trump’s rhetoric, many Mexicans sense the implicit threat of American force, backed by a history of occupations and wars."

Though Mexico has free trade accords with 40 countries, 80 percent of its exports go to the U.S. In parallel the ministry of economy is angling to speed up the renegotiation process for an existing free trade agreement with the E.U., according to the WSJ.

News Briefs
  • The U.N.'s Secretary General said Trump's executive orders banning visas for seven Muslim-majority nations and freezing the U.S.'s refugee programs "violate" the organization's "basic principals." Antonio Guterres, who took office a month ago, headed the U.N.'s refugee agency for a decade, and said the executive orders won't do much to stop terrorist threats, reports the New York Times.
  • An Obama administration refugee program aimed at Central American minors was also frozen by Trump's executive order, potentially affecting thousands of youths targeted by gang violence, reports the Guardian. "Those affected by last week’s executive order include teenagers threatened with death after witnessing gang killings and others fleeing forced recruitment by crime factions. Most are virtual prisoners inside their homes, having abandoned school and work as a result of the threats and beatings." (See yesterday's briefs for the Los Angeles Times' story on the issue.)
  • Millionaire businessman Eunicio Oliveira was elected Senate Speaker in Brazil, despite having been implicated in the same Petrobras corruption scandal that brought down his predecessor, reports AFP. The Senate vote was a victory for President Michel Temer, and ushered in an ally who will help push through polemic reforms aimed at revitalizing the economy.
  • Temer promised to continue with the reforms, which made the Brazilian stock market and currency the strongest performers in the emerging market last year, reports the Financial Times.
  • Brazil's Supreme Court chose Justice Edson Fachin to takeover the investigations into politicians implicated by the Operation Car Wash corruption probe. The newest member of the court was apparently chosen by random electronic selection, and will take over the sprawling investigation previously headed by Justice Teori Zavaski who died in a plane crash two weeks ago, reports Reuters. (See Monday's post.) 
  • Colombian army officers and FARC leaders met for a commemorative ceremony marking the official end of fifty years of conflict yesterday, reports EFE. (See yesterday's and Tuesday's briefs.)
  • Overcoming poverty in Latin America will require tackling inequality, said a top UNDP official who pointed to Bolivia, Peru and Dominican Republic as flagships in balancing economic growth with social commitments to poor populations, reports Reuters.
  • American Airlines opened a formal Havana office yesterday, despite uncertainties over Trump's policy towards Cuba, reports the Associated Press.
  • Who says girls can't fight? A group of Cuban female boxers are pushing for the government to form the country's first official women's team and dispel old myths that their beauty is more important than their punches, reports the Associated Press
  • Argentine women started the regional protest movement against femicide. Now protesters are planning to bare their chests for the right to go topless after a police operation forced three sunbathers from a beach for refusing to cover up their breasts, reports Página 12. "Tetazos" are planned in several locations around the country, notably next Tuesday in Buenos Aires. A court found the women were not guilty of any crime, calling their actions "an act of civic rebellion," reports La Nación.

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