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?