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Trump’s Steel Tariffs Plan Becomes Bargaining Chip In Latest Round Of NAFTA Talks

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: The White House and top trade officials are pushing to speed up trade negotiations with Mexico and Canada. The latest round of talks for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) wrapped in Mexico City yesterday. It's a deal that will likely change the U.S. and Arizona's relationship with two of its biggest trading partners. Jorge Valencia from KJZZ's Mexico City Bureau was there and joins us now. Good morning, Jorge.


GOLDSTEIN: Jorge, it seems that U.S. trade officials are really getting impatient with the pace of these negotiations, so describe what the scene looked like for us yesterday.

VALENCIA: Yes, and the main character here is a man named Robert Lighthizer. He is the U.S. trade representative, and he got up on a stage along with his Canadian Mexican counterparts. They gave each other awkward hugs, they gave statements. And at the crux of what Robert Lighthizer was saying was that he basically laid out the political, the election schedule for the three countries this year. We've got Mexico's got election presidential elections coming up in July. We've gotten the U.S., of course, our mid-term elections in November. The governments of Ottawa and Quebec have their elections this year. And so he's saying he wants to avoid what he calls political headwinds. Because this is an agreement that would have to be confirmed by the legislative bodies of each country. And so he is really concerned about that, and he's saying that he wants to wrap this up as soon as possible.

GOLDSTEIN: OK , well then, the key thing we need to know then is, how did Lighthizer's Mexican counterpart respond to his comments?

VALENCIA: Yeah, I think this was interesting, because even on this logistical point there seems to be a disagreement. His Mexican counterpart is Idelfonso Guajardo, he's the economy minister here. Side note, he's also got a master's degree from the University of Arizona ,  And he said that he is willing to see through the negotiations as long as they will take — or at the very least until his current administration President Enrique Pena Nieto leaves office which is in December. And, I mean, it's also worth remembering that perhaps the reason why there are differing viewpoints on this is because this is a negotiation that last time around in the '90s took several years to put together. So even on this logistical point they seemed to not see eye to eye.

GOLDSTEIN: Jorge, we know of course here in the U.S. or many other countries are always following the Trump administration closely as relates to anything involving trade. Now we're seeing tariffs that the president wants to apply to imports that are coming to the U.S. How do you think the Mexican counterpart is following the U.S. and wondering what they're going to do?

VALENCIA: Well, I want to pick up the very first part of what you just said about these tariffs that the president floated in the last few days. This is for steel and for aluminum. And this is a really big deal for Canada — Mexico too — but especially Canada, because Canada is at the same time that biggest seller to the U.S. and the biggest buyer from the U.S. of steel and aluminum. So Chrystia Freeland, the foreign relations minister who was with these two other guys on stage yesterday, said that is basically a deal breaker for them. That is really really big deal for them. And I think it also tells you a little bit about the negotiating strategy because it seems that you've got the president saying this right before the negotiations wrap up, then you've got them given joint statements and then Robert Lighthizer saying, 'Well, hey, you know what?I mean maybe Canada and Mexico could be exempt from these new tariffs if we sign NAFTA deal that is severable for all of us.' So it seems that perhaps this is being used as a bargaining chip for the U.S. and

GOLDSTEIN: And then Jorge, finally, what's going to happen in the next few weeks? What do you anticipate? So it looks like there's going to be a next formal round of talks is going to be in April, and the negotiators are saying that they want to have informal meetings, maybe teleconferences, and in the interim until then. And again a reminder presidential elections here in Mexico are in July, and they are all looking at that deadline.

GOLDSTEIN: From KJZZ's Mexico City Bureau, Jorge Valencia. Jorge, thanks, as always.

VALENCIA: Thank you, Steve.

Steve Goldstein was a host at KJZZ from 1997 to 2022.