US, Mexico officials bicker over NAFTA 2.0 

U.S. Trade Representative Ambassador Robert Lighthizer speaks during opening statements of the First Round of NAFTA negotiations held at Marriott Wardman Park in Washington, D.C., on August 16, 2017. (Ting Shen/Xinhua/Sipa USA/TNS)

The top trade officials for the United States and Mexico exchanged disagreements over the weekend and into Monday, with Mexico’s top negotiator for the new North American Free Trade Agreement immediately flying to Washington, frustrated by what he characterized as a surprise move by the U.S.

Jesus Seade, Mexico’s undersecretary for North America in the Foreign Ministry, accused the U.S. of sending attachés to monitor Mexico’s labor conditions as part of the new trade deal, but the confusion was cooled on Monday by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.

The flare-up, however, was yet another snag in a negotiation that has been full of them since President Trump took office.

The difference now is that the U.S. Congress is on the brink of authorizing the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). USMCA is essentially the new North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a trade policy implemented in 1994 that transformed the Rio Grande Valley and cross-border trade.

Lighthizer pointed out in a letter made public on Monday that the concerns raised by Seade over the attachés were not well founded.

“As is typical for U.S. embassies in major foreign capitals, the United States Embassy in Mexico presently houses attachés from over a dozen federal agencies,” Lighthizer said. “The U.S. government has stationed personnel in various embassies around the world, including in Mexico, to assist foreign governments in improving work conditions. Mexico, in turn, has many attachés stationed in the United States,” from various Mexican federal agencies.

Lighthizer went on.

“The Administration included language in the USMCA implementing legislation authorizing up to five attachés from the Department of Labor to work with their Mexican counterparts, workers, and civil society groups on implementation of the Mexican labor reform, including by providing technical assistance and disbursing capacity building funds, and provide assistance to the new U.S. government interagency labor committee,” the letter said. “These personnel will not be ‘labor inspectors’ and will abide by all relevant Mexican laws.”

Seade responded in an afternoon press conference on Monday that Mexico was satisfied. He was also asked by reporters what Mexico gained from the weekend squabble.

“We won clarity,” Seade said.