By RICARDO CASTILLO
What was U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and accompanying rock stars doing last Friday, July 13, in Mexico City? The answer is easy and heard expressed repeatedly in Mexican slang.
One of those expressions: “They were gauging the level of the water on the boiling sweet potatoes.” (“Midiendole el agua a los camotes.” It is a Mexican kitchen term meaning that if the sweet potatoes have too little water they may burn and with too much they may overcook.)
The phrase is very often applied to politics, and in the case of Pompeo’s visit, it means that the visiting U.S. officials were feeling the political mood in the upper echelons of the Mexican government in order to know how to proceed in the near future when the presidential change fully takes place. Have no doubt about it: They came on direct orders from President Donald Trump.
Accompanying Secretary Pompeo were Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Trump’s son-in-law and top Mexico contact Jared Kushner, plus an extended entourage.
The group made four stops. They first visited President Enrique Peña Nieto, with whom they spent about one hour. Their visit to the presidential residence of Los Pinos was interpreted as polite protocol in which about the only real subject of discussion was the immediate restart of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) renegotiations, which have been suspended for the meantime. Can NAFTA talks conclude before Nov. 30, when Peña Nieto steps down? No answer was made public.
From Los Pinos, the foursome moved to the U.S. Embassy on Reforma Avenue, where Secretary Pompeo addressed embassy personnel. About the only noteworthy public news item on Pompeo’s address there was that the now 16-month-old Trump avministration has not yet appointed a new ambassador and there was apparently no mention of one anytime soon.
Then the 25-van-strong motorcade carrying the awesome foursome rolled to nearby Colonia Roma, where they were expected by President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) and the next secretary of Foreign Relations and former Mexico City Mayor (like AMLO) Marcelo Ebrard.
In a press conference after the meeting – which was also full of wishful hopes – Ebrard told reporters that the salient moment of the meeting was when AMLO delivered a personal letter to President Trump containing a proposal-of-understanding to solidify negotiations on trade – including NAFTA, regional development, immigration and security. Incidentally, among the people with AMLO was the future new NAFTA negotiator, Jesús Seade Kuri.
“We’ll comment on the issues once we get an answer from President Trump,” Ebrard told reporters.
Previous to his arrival in Mexico City, Secretary Pompeo tweeted that one objective of the one-day tour was to meet and get close to AMLO.
AMLO was very polite to the visiting Americans, whom he told “we’re delighted to have you, we welcome you.
“Congratulations,” answered Pompeo, as his first remark to kick off the 50-minute long gathering and photo section under the portrait of former President Benito Juárez, who was described during the meeting as a good pen pal of Republican Abraham Lincoln.
In the press conference, Ebrard said that AMLO and Pompeo did not touch on spiny issues such as gun-running from the United States to Mexico, the border wall under construction or the separation of children from parents that caused havoc recently in the United States.
“We left those for some other time,” Ebrard said. He also explained that it was a “frank dialogue to establish that Mexico (meaning the AMLO administration) is going to find the basis for an understanding so that in the coming years we can have a better relationship with the United States.”
Which, of course, was also the objective of the foursome’s visitation, which moved on to the fourth and final stop at the Foreign Relations Secretariat facility on Juárez Street in front of Alameda Park in downtown Mexico City.
That was really not Pompeo’s visit, but Jared Kushner’s, who met with his buddy Foreign Relations Secretary Luis Videgaray, who it was finally discovered organized the logistics of the entire tour.
This time, Videgaray and Pompeo (not Kushner) held a joint press conference in which Pompeo pleaded to continue working on disbanding transnational criminal drug trafficking organizations with the help of the Mexican government and blamed these organization for spreading violence on both sides of the border.
Pompeo also featured the importance of Mexico as leader in the joint effort in reducing violence in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras in Central America, which is nowadays the main source of illegal migrants to the United States.
Secretary Videgaray said that President Peña Nieto reiterated the will of the current administration to “step up” renegotiations to have a final NAFTA draft as soon as possible.
All in all, the visit of Pompeo, Mnuchin, Kirstjen and Kushner was described to have been “terse” in each of the four visits it involved.
Not bad for a start in what was predicted would be a rough and tumble new relationship between AMLO and the Trump administration.
The water on the sweet potatoes is just the right amount, for now.