Mexico’s chief trade negotiator, Jesús Seade, had just started talking with Utah news reporters Friday when he apologized, and said he had to break it off to deal with urgent matters.
He was finalizing a bargain for President Donald Trump to lift tariffs on steel and aluminum imported from Mexico and Canada. As Seade walked away, he was heard arranging for a phone call to Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to seal the deal.
Seade later told The Salt Lake Tribune that finally lifting these tariffs on industrial metals should clear most obstacles to ratifying a new trade agreement between the three countries. Battles using tariffs and counter-tariffs as weapons had thwarted it, as Mexico and Canada also chafed at barbs that Trump threw at them.
“I’m very happy to tell you that after all these months of difficulty in this trilateral relationship in the world of trade, it [the tariff order] is being lifted here today,” Seade said to cheers at Gov. Gary Herbert’s Utah Economic Summit at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City. “This is a great victory for all of us and a great victory for North America.”
His remarks came just as national leaders issued a joint statement announcing the news.
“I am now confident and positive about ratification of the [larger] trade deal” to update and replace the old North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Seade told The Tribune.
He told the Utah summit that Mexico’s president asked him three weeks ago to hunker down with U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer to end the tariffs and trade war between the countries.
Seade said he and Lighthizer have a solid, long-standing working relationship and he is amazed at Lighthizer’s skill and energy — and his monumental temper. “He’s the nicest devil,” Seade said.
The pair took only two weeks to hammer out a deal that both sides liked, he said, and then they took it to Canadian officials to make it a three-way agreement.
Seade said the bargain struck Friday avoids steel quotas that Canada and Mexico had both opposed but adopts tough new monitoring and enforcement measures to prevent Chinese steel from being shipped to the United States via its two neighbors. All sides commit that any retaliation would come in the steel/aluminum sector, “not like last time that was hitting your asparagus and your pork.”
Citing national security considerations, Trump imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum in March 2018 against China and several other countries as the administration blamed Chinese overproduction for depressing global steel and aluminum prices, driving many U.S. mills out of business.
Seade said Mexico and Canada were originally left out of the tariffs but were added later when they refused to go along with proposed quotas — again with the United States citing national security concerns. Mexico and Canada retaliated with tariffs of their own — and complained that they and their steel sales posed no national security threats.
Congresses in all three countries vowed not to ratify the new free trade agreement with the tariffs in place — but Seade is confident they will proceed now.
“We are creating a better treaty. It is superior to NAFTA,” Seade said. “It has, for example, clearer rules. Dispute settlement becomes less arbitrary, less subjective, less unpredictable. In addition to all that, it creates an aura of good business, a special relationship” for the three North American countries.
Stéphane Lessard, Canada’s consul in Denver, also hailed the lifting of the tariffs and the new trade agreement during the Utah economic summit.
“We are so happy,” he said. “This will allow us to move forward with reaping the full benefits of the NAFTA reboot.”
Lessard said that 120,000 jobs in Utah depend on trade with Canada and Mexico, showing the importance of the three counties working together.
Seade said bargains could help Utah and Mexico form more partnerships. Both have expanding high-tech and aerospace sectors, he noted. While it may make them competitors, it also shows they “are the best place to develop partners.”
When Seade was asked whether he feels the recent use of tariffs by the United States hurts or helps it internationally, he said, “It’s hurting, it’s hurting. ... I think this kind of a mantra of playing tough with your partners, that’s not the way to make progress. … That’s not the way to do business.”
Part of Seade’s responsibilities as undersecretary for North American affairs also deals with immigration. He sees relations with the United States improving a bit on that front.
“We are making big efforts to have a more disciplined process of acceptance of people from the southern border” from Central America, he said. “That is improving. That, I think, is having an effect on the United States.”
Seade added, “We both have a problem of pressure from migration from the south. Se we have to handle this work together.”