Via Teleconference

(September 8, 2021)

5:07 P.M. EDT
MODERATOR:  Thanks, Nick.  And good afternoon, everyone.  Welcome to this on-background briefing to discuss tomorrow’s U.S.-Mexico High-Level Economic Dialogue.
For your reference, today our speakers are going to be [senior administration officials].  For the purposes of this call, both speakers should be referred to as “senior administration officials.” 
The contents of this call and then materials that we’ll share later this evening are all embargoed until 11:00 a.m. tomorrow.  And if you have any questions, as always, you can email me or the NSC press distro.  Your participation in the call indicates that you agree to these ground rules. 
And without any further ado, I’ll turn it over to [senior administration officials].
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Great.  Thank you.  And thank you, everybody, for taking the time to join the call this afternoon.  I know how busy everybody is. 
So we are restarting a high-level economic dialogue that has been dormant since 2016 because the President and the Vice President are firm believers in the importance of our relationship with our North American partners and, in particular, our relationship with Mexico. 
As you all may know, then-Vice President Biden launched this dialogue in 2013 on a visit to Mexico.  And in his first virtual bilateral meeting with President López Obrador, they agreed to restart the dialogue.  And that’s something that when the Vice President traveled to the region, laid out guidance on the priorities that our teams were to establish in the development of the agenda.  And so this is a culmination of these efforts. 
And I’ll say just a couple things at the top and then turn it over to [senior administration official].  I think that, first, the High-Level Economic Dialogue symbolizes the strategic nature of the U.S.-Mexico relationship, which is broad, deep, and a central element that binds us. 
Two, the HLED provides an opportunity for us to build upon the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, institutionalize an economic relationship that has been dormant in the previous four years, and manage it strategically, including creating an institutional space where areas of disagreement can be addressed in a collaborative manner and from a reservoir of goodwill.  And our goal here is to deepen cooperation in strategic areas and pivot to new opportunities. 
What the participants are going to be doing is agreeing on the priorities that will define the future of U.S.-Mexico economic cooperation.  It is a dialogue that is going to evolve over time based on need, based on consultation with stakeholders, ensuring that we are engaging in a strategic manner with our most important economic partner.
I’ll lay out a few points on the agenda.  The four-point agenda is one that’s going to look at, I think, building back together; number two, investing in southern Mexico and Central America; securing our future prosperity; investing in our people.
Those are the main ones.  And I think the objective here is also to have a strategic, measurable, and goal-oriented forum, as well as one that connects to the broader North America strategy and allows us to work on issues of mutual concern.
Briefly, the Vice President will kick off the dialogue, as somebody who’s been engaging actively on Mexico and leading our efforts on the root causes strategy in Central America.  And what I think you’ll hear from her is a shared commitment to renew the strong partnership between the United States and Mexico and that our economies and our peoples are intertwined.
This is something that the Vice President and President López Obrador discussed when they met in June.  And during that meeting, the Vice President and López Obrador made several significant announcements, including the announcement of the starting of the dialogue.  So, we’re very excited to have her kick off the conversation. 
They agreed on that third pillar, which is the “Promoting Sustainable and Economic and Social Development in Southern Mexico and Central America” as a key element of the root causes strategy that she is — she is leading. 
So, I will leave it there and turn it over to my colleague.  Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Thank you so much, [senior administration official].  I think you summarized that quite well, and I just wanted to add three key points. 
One is that, you know, the agenda that we’re working on, I think, is reflective of three main things: One is the government — you know, our administration’s priority to think about how we’re leveraging strategic partnerships in order to come out better and stronger than ever before.
And so you’ll see in the HLED themes — for example, the first pillar of building back together — it’s really focusing on issues of resilience, of minimizing supply chain disruptions, of looking at leveraging strategic opportunities with Mexico, and, in addition to some of the traditional work that we’ve done, to modernize our border infrastructure.
The inclusion of the pillar that [senior administration official] mentioned — that was something that was agreed upon between our Vice President and Mexican President López Obrador, but it’s something that’s an added element to the HLED: “Promoting Sustainable Economic and Social Development.”
This really, again, speaks to the priorities that we are placing on enhancing the livelihoods and making sure that we are reaching out to the most marginalized.  And, again, is a clear manifestation of the commitments that we’re making not only for Mexico, but working in partnership on areas of mutual cooperation in the service of improving livelihoods and wellbeing in Central America.
The last thing I’d say is that, you know, again, this reflects some of the challenges that we’ve identified in the years where we haven’t met as an HLED — some of the challenges of the moment, but also really looking into the future. 
And I think in that respect, yes, we will continue to use this as an overall frame that allows us to adapt, but that certainly, you know, for the moment being, does take into account the moment that we’re in and our mutual commitment to coming out stronger and looking at better ways of sharing the prosperity that we can generate between our two countries and making sure that our populations can really thrive.
And so, I’ll leave it at that for remarks at the top.  I’m happy to take questions.
Q    Hi.  Thank you for having this.  On the point of the HLED sort of going away for four years — I mean, clearly, political realities changed here.  But now that you’re bringing it back, political realities of Mexico are very different. 
And I’d just like you to generally comment on the — you know, what challenges you’re finding that are unique to the López Obrador government, and particularly, if you can touch on do you think they’re doing enough on the labor chapter of the USMCA — democratizing labor in Mexico.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Okay, I’ll let my colleague talk to specifically the labor issues, as the foremost expert on this and somebody who has actually worked on this in Mexico City.
What I’ll say is there is an important distinction in how we are approaching the relationship with Mexico, and that is that as opposed to threatening or using punitive action, we have sought to engage constructively and collaboratively with them.
In the first meeting the President had with López Obrador, he made very clear that the United States is better when we invest — when the United States and Mexico invest in each other, in our shared prosperity. 
And that has actually been an approach that — whether it’s migration, or the conversations we’re having on security, and then the conversations that our Cabinet Secretaries are going to be advancing tomorrow — are ones where we have found that by engaging constructively with the Mexicans — being very candid and even raising issues of disagreement, but in a way where we’re trying to work toward resolution — has actually yielded better results than a confrontational approach.
On labor, what I’ll say is we have found that under the López Obrador administration, there has been a broad alignment on the need to improve, you know, workers’ rights in Mexico, and that’s something where we’ve been engaging constructively. 
But I’ll ask my colleague to speak to that.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Thanks, [senior administration official].  I think, so far, we’ve been heartened by the reception we’ve — and the engagement on behalf of the López Obrador administration. 
We fully acknowledge Secretary Alcalde’s efforts in helping to promote full freedom of association for Mexican workers.  And we do think that in the two labor dispute cases that have invoked the Rapid Response Mechanism of USMCA, there was a lot of, you know, dialogue and back and forth. 
And we believe that we reached acceptable solutions in both of those cases, and we think both sides have a lot to be proud of.  We think that, you know, these mechanisms should be made readily available to workers.  We stand ready to support them in the exercise of their rights, and certainly in enforcing all of the provisions of USMCA, including the labor provisions. 
And so, we hope that this really is a showing of our mutual commitment and that we’re open to further dialogue engagement and concrete outcomes on improving labor outcomes in Mexico. 
Q    Hi.  Thanks for taking my question.  Well, which relates basically to reinforcement of the USMCA agreement.  As I’m sure you’re aware, the business community has highlighted a lot of areas in which they feel like the Mexican government isn’t honoring a commitment made under that agreement.  You know, to give two examples, in areas like energy and in biotech.  How much will that be a part of the conversation tomorrow?  Or is that — is that for a different set of meetings?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  So, look, what I’ll say is that, again, in the preparations for the High-Level Economic Dialogue, we arrived at these pillars that I laid out.  But in our conversations with the Mexicans, we made clear that they could raise any issue of concern and that we would raise issues of concern, and that we would look to find ways to find constructive resolution along these issues. 
I think it’s important here to underscore that the most important economic actors in Mexico are U.S. companies and that we are not responsible — we cannot force companies to invest.  That is something that is up to the Mexican government to create the right environment.  And — but we find the most constructive backboard is one where we’re actually having these discussions at the Cabinet level, engaging regularly and actively to figure out how to work through some of these issues. 
We may not find agreement in terms of priorities on energy with Mexico.  You know, that’s — Mexico is a sovereign country.  President López Obrador was elected; he gets to determine the priorities of his government. 
What I — what I can say is that in the conversations that we’ve had with Mexico, that the President has had with President López Obrador, that the Vice President — in almost two hours of conversations — has had is: We’ve laid — they’ve laid out what their priorities are for the United States, in terms of preparing the United States for future competitiveness, retooling the automotive industry to be able to compete in the electric vehicle industry, and that — and that, you know, as the President has said and the Vice President has said continuously for us, issues of climate change are a national security emergency. 
And so that’s where the United States is really going to be — under this administration — going to be prioritizing investments in our economy, in our capabilities, in our workers.  And that’s something that facilitates a conversation with Mexico so that we can seek common ground. 
But I would invite my colleague to see if she has anything to add.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  No, I think that’s right.  I think it’s also right to acknowledge that, fundamentally, the HLED is not a dispute resolution mechanism.  It’s certainly a space for dialogue engagement and hopefully it helps to stave off any such, you know, issues from getting even bigger. 
We do, you know, focus on areas where we have a lot to gain by mutually cooperating.  And so, of course, as [senior administration official] said, that it fully involves putting thorny issues on the table and seeing how far we can get through in our dialogues. 
That said, we do believe that our relationship with Mexico is broad and it’s deep, and there’s a lot of different facets to it.  And this is, you know, one space that complements many other bilateral conversations and deep engagement with Mexico. 
Q    Hi, thanks so much for doing the call.  You mentioned the root causes strategy.  I was wondering if you could elaborate a bit more on what joint migration efforts will be discussed tomorrow, like, specifically, will the southern border closure — which, you know, has had economic consequences for border communities — as well as the potential reinstatement of the Remain in Mexico program, following the Texas court ruling, be on the agenda at all for tomorrow?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Great.  So, what I would say is — thank you for that question.  So, what I’ll say is that the High-Level Economic Dialogue, as it relates to migration, is going to include that element on investing in promoting sustainable economic and social development in Southern Mexico and Central America. 
And, you know, fundamentally, the only sustainable way to address irregular migration in the long term is to invest in communities that people do not want to leave.  And that’s something that President López Obrador and President Biden discussed in their first meeting. 
They reaffirmed the commitment to try to promote economic opportunity and prosperity in southern Mexico and the Northern Triangle in Central America — in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.  And our governments have been engaging in this discussion, you know, since that discussion.
The Vice President, as I mentioned, has been the lead in our development of the root causes strategy in Central America.  And a big part of that is, you know, promoting investment.  It’s — but it’s also, you know, working with the private sector to make sure that the private sector is playing a role, not just in creating economic opportunity but, in places like Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, is demanding reforms that create a transparent environment in the governance space for the private sector to invest without fear of corruption or lack of transparency. 
And so that’s going to be the main focus.  Of course, Secretary Ebrard is going to be here and have side meetings.  He’s going to have meetings with other officials, and we are going to following — be following up on our ongoing efforts. 
I do have to defer to the Department of Homeland Security on the specifics, but of the Remain in Mexico program, what I’ll say is, obviously, there’s a Fifth Court and a Supreme Court decision, and that we have been talking to the Mexicans in good faith to try to figure out a way forward on that consistent with the ruling of the court. 
But on the details on that, I would refer you to the Department of Homeland Security.
Q    Yes, thank you very much for doing the call.  I wanted to ask about, in particular, the — you mentioned — my colleague Doug Palmer mentioned biotech and energy as two areas of concern. 
I wanted to ask if you expect, you know, given the presence of USTR Tai, the Mexican side to raise the issue of the automotive rules of origin.  It’s something that we’ve been reporting on since mid-July in terms of the U.S. automotive industry, as well as Mexico concerns that the application or interpretation by the U.S. has been too strict and that that actually threatens to undermine the USMCA; and whether you have any indication of, you know, given the focus on supply chains as part of the conversation, whether you expect this to be a forum in which that issue is raised or discussed.  Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  [Senior administration official], do you want to take that?  And then I want to circle back to something. 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Sure.  So, it’s — as [senior administration official] mentioned, we did not preclude anyone from bringing up the issues that they feel are important to raise in this space. 
The question specifically on auto and auto content rules, or rules of origin, are not directly set up in this agenda for now.  That does not mean that Secretary Clouthier from Mexico or any of her colleagues might not well want to bring it up.
And if it does so, we are happy to take that conversation as far as it goes.  But for right now, our USTR is the lead agency that, you know, enforces our trade agreements and interprets the clauses therein.  So I would really have to refer you to my USTR colleagues to see, you know, how their policy is being rolled out.  So I would certainly defer to them.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yeah, well said.  And, you know, obviously, again, to reiterate, this is a dialogue by which we are re-institutionalizing a relationship that is incredibly important and complex, and finding ways to address these issues constructively.  And that’s what we’re seeking to do.
I was remiss at the top for not saying — and you may have been (inaudible), but I wanted to just detail here that the three co-chairs — Secretary Blinken, Secretary Raimondo, and Ambassador Tai — will be the co-chairs.  Also, Secretary Mayorkas will be there because, of course, DHS has an important economic component.  But also, USAID Administrator Sam Power will attend, given the ongoing conversations that have been taking place with AMEXCID, USAID’s counterpart in Mexico, on southern Mexico and investment in Central America.
But I also want to underscore here: So, our Ambassador to Mexico, Ken Salazar, is also going to be participating.  And I can’t say enough about Ambassador Salazar.  For those of you who know him, you know, he was in state politics in Colorado, a senator, Cabinet Secretary. 
But more importantly, he is a Mexican-American with a longstanding history.  And his knowledge of Mexico, his level of, actually, energy and ambition to drive an ambitious relationship, and, frankly, his understanding of U.S. politics and just, you know, the — and the relationship that he has with the President and Vice President, and the agenda that they have for the country, is a unique opportunity that we have not had. 
I don’t think we’ve had an ambassador to Mexico of this caliber in recent history, but particularly one that I think for the first time really bridges what is a relationship that is not just foreign policy, it’s domestic policy as well.
So it’s going to provide us with a lot of opportunity to advance a bilateral relationship to the level that it really merits.  He is somebody who, when he makes phone calls, Cabinet Secretaries pick up the phone call — pick up the phone.  And he’s somebody who the Latino community supports immensely but also obviously has relationships with people on both sides of the aisle.
So there’s a great potential.  We’re really excited for him to go down to Mexico. 
Thank you.
MODERATOR:  And I think we’re going to wrap up the call here.  As a reminder, both of our speakers should be referred to as “senior administration officials.”
We will be sharing some materials with you in advance of the meeting tomorrow that will be embargoed until 11:00 tomorrow, along with the contents of the call.
And thank you so much for your participation, both to our speakers and to our reporters.  Have a good day, everyone.
5:29 P.M. EDT

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