In September, less than week after Donald Trump visited Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico City, then-Finance Minister Luis Videgaray resigned his post, with no reason given at the time.
It now appears that Videgaray was the architect of Trump’s visit and that his resignation was the consequence of a decision that was excoriated throughout Mexico and “greatly weakened” him, Peña Nieto said.
But now, with Donald Trump just weeks away from taking the oath as US president, Videgaray is back in the fold in Mexico City.
‘Our strengths are also enormous’
Peña Nieto appointed Videgaray — a longtime friend and close adviser — as foreign minister during the first week of January, replacing Claudia Ruiz Massieu, who had held the position since August 2015.
During the announcement, the Mexican president spoke of Videgaray’s duty to engage with Mexico’s neighbours, specifically the incoming government of Donald Trump.
“With the change of government in the United States on 20 January, the instructions for Secretary Videgaray is to accelerate dialogue and contacts so that from the first day the bases for building a constructive work relationship can be established,” Peña Nieto said during televised remarks.
Videgaray will guide US-Mexico relations on the issues of immigration, security, and trade with the aim of promoting “Mexico’s interests without diminishing our sovereignty and the dignity of Mexicans,” Peña Nieto said.
In his new position, Videgaray is to “continue with the emphasis to boost development in Central America and the mechanisms of integration in Latin America, emphasising the Pacific Alliance,” Peña Nieto said, referring to the regional bloc made up of Pacific coast countries.
Peña Nieto also addressed members of Mexico’s foreign ministry, telling them, without mentioning any other country, that “the challenge is enormous, the threats are there, but the opportunities and our strengths are also enormous.”
Cutting a deal
Videgaray’s return, jarring to many in Mexico, appears to be a response to Trump’s election in November, which was similarly dismaying for many in the country.
Videgaray, as finance minister, reportedly orchestrated the meeting between the Mexican president and Trump. Several weeks prior to the summit, a mutual friend from Wall Street set up a meeting between Videgaray and Jared Kushner — a Trump confidant — in New York, a source close to the Mexican government told The Wall Street Journal in September.
Trump himself apparently holds Videgaray in high regard.
“Mexico has lost a brilliant finance minister and wonderful man who I know is highly respected by President Peña Nieto,” Trump tweeted in the hours after Videgaray’s resignation.
“With Luis, Mexico and the United States would have made wonderful deals together – where both Mexico and the US would have benefitted,” Trump added.
“The new foreign minister has shown himself as a politician disposed to the transactional deal, something that is part of the DNA of the US president-elect,” Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Washington, DC-based Woodrow Wilson Center, and Andrew Selee, executive vice president at the Center, wrote in a column for Mexican newspaper El Universal.
“Difficult times are coming in which the Trump administration probably tries to renegotiate some part of the North American Free Trade Agreement,” Wood and Selee write, “and it’s good to have an Mexican interlocutor who knows the impact that this could have on the Mexican economy and how to transform a potential national disaster into a comparative advantage.”
The Trump team, too, reportedly sees Videgaray as a partner in dealmaking, and not in regards to NAFTA.
“When I asked one top source about Mexico and the wall, source said this story is most important of the week,” Robert Costa, national political reporter for The Washington Post, referring to Peña Nieto’s appointment of Videgaray, tweeted on Friday.
“The way Trump people are talking about wall behind the scenes: we can work w/ Luis Videgaray, force Congress to get the project started,” Costa added.
Neither confrontation nor submission
While the interpersonal dynamics of the relationship between Washington and Mexico City during the Trump administration remain to be seen, Videgaray, in his first address as foreign minister, laid out how Mexico’s government would approach bilateral relations going forward, given what he called the “considerable challenge of US political dynamics.”
“We will negotiate with great confidence in ourselves, without fear, knowing how important Mexico is for the United States in economic, social, and political terms,” Videgaray said in Mexico City on Monday, during his opening address to the 28th Annual Meeting of Ambassadors and Consuls.
“There are voices that are already promoting a strategy of conflict, confrontations, and even insult,” Videgaray said. “Others predict a shameful submission.”
“Mexico will not choose either of these false solutions,” he added, but would instead opt for “intelligence and dignity, opening the doors to dialogue.”
“But I want to make clear, and we would make clear in all of our dialogue … those millions of Mexicans who have migrated to find work, they are not criminals, but they are productive people, who represent in the majority of their cases the best of Mexico,” he continued.
‘A period of enormous frustration’
Even with Videgaray’s assertions about the “intelligence and dignity” with which the Peña Nieto government will approach relations with the Trump administration — or with the suggestions of Trump’s affinity for Videgaray — there are doubts about how much the current Mexican administration can shape Trump’s stance toward the US’s southern neighbour and major trading partner.
“The mandate of Videgaray is a mandate of rescue. It is not really a mandate to advance or move forward the agenda of Mexico in Washington,” Tony Payan, director of the Mexico Center at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, told Newsweek en Español, adding that it was unlikely NAFTA would endure in its present form.
Payan said that there was an “illusion” in Mexico that Trump could be persuaded to change his attitude toward the country, and that Videgaray would have limited leverage when it came to his diplomatic maneuvers.
Noting that Trump, given to using “carrots” and “sticks” with US companies located in or moving to Mexico, and that the president-elect seemed to view diplomacy as a zero-sum game, Payan suggested Mexico’s diplomatic efforts would be stymied.
“I think that it’s going to be a period of enormous frustration in diplomatic policy and [of] an enormous incapacity of the Peña administration, to be able to make up for that which Trump wants to do when he wants to do it,” Payan said.
Assessments of Videgaray’s appointment have been mixed, with some casting it as a blunder by Peña Nieto and others stating confidence in Videgaray. But the new foreign minister himself seems to recognise that the task ahead of him will test the limits of his experience.
“I want to address two things: The first is that I am not a diplomat. You have dedicated your entire lives to it,” he said to Mexican foreign ministry staff on the day of his appointment. “I am going to learn from you in a moment when Mexico needs us, the challenge is enormous.”
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