Mexico seeks stronger U.S. ties despite Trump campaign barbs


 Reuters International

Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto speaks to the audience during a meeting with members of the Diplomatic Corps in Mexico City, Mexico January 11, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

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By Adriana Barrera

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico's president said on Friday he wanted to strengthen relations with his new U.S. counterpart Donald Trump, whose threats and barbs against the country raised fears of a major economic crisis, and battered its currency.

President Enrique Pena Nieto, pilloried at home for meeting Trump in August after the New York businessman called Mexican migrants rapists and murderers, said on Twitter he would defend the interests of Mexico and its people in a "respectful" dialogue.

"We will work to strengthen our relationship with shared responsibility," said Pena Nieto, who likened Trump's rise to the ascent of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini after the American's broadsides early in the election campaign.

Trump vowed to build a wall along the U.S. southern border to keep Mexicans out and threatened to tear up a joint trade deal if he cannot recast it in favor of the United States.

The White House website said on Friday that Trump was committed to renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which underpins Mexico's economy, and would move to withdraw if no "fair deal" is forthcoming.

Mexico's government said Pena Nieto will make a foreign policy address on Monday morning, a few days before a delegation of senior Mexican officials travel to Washington to discuss relations with top Trump advisers.

The delegation will be led by Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray, who said in an interview late on Friday that he will meet with senior White House aides as well as newly-confirmed U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Gen. John Kelly.

Videgaray pledged to "negotiate without fear" and said he will work to ensure that remittances sent from Mexicans living in the United States to relatives back home are protected from any seizure.

Trump's inauguration was marked by subdued protests across Mexico. One political activist on Mexico City's main thoroughfare held up a banner declaring "Racist, gringo Trump...son of Satan, you are a danger to the world."

More than three-quarters of Mexicans hold a bad or very bad opinion of Trump, according to a poll of 600 people by polling firm Gabinete de Comunicacion Estrategica (GCE).

Trump has threatened to slap hefty tariffs on Mexican-made goods, sending the peso to a string of historic lows against the dollar. Concern about him is widespread.

"Trump if you are Christian, don't crucify Mexicans," migrant activist Sergio Tamay wrote on a fuschia-coloured sign at a migrant protest in the northern border city of Mexicali.

Still, Mexico's peso was the strongest-performing among the top 10 most-traded currencies after Trump's inaugural address in Washington made no mention of the country. It was up more than 1.6 percent at 21.582 per dollar in the early afternoon.

UNPOPULAR PRESIDENT

The GCE poll also showed fear about Trump's impact on the country's material well-being. Eighty percent of Mexicans see an economic crisis and falling investment as very or somewhat likely during Trump's administration, it showed.

On Friday, his strategy of pressuring companies directly to move jobs back to the United States also fueled protests outside a Ford Motor Company store in Mexico City.

"No to terrorism against free companies," said a sign at the protest, where demonstrators pummeled piñatas of Trump.

This month, Ford canceled a planned $1.6 billion factory in Mexico, saying it would instead invest $700 million in Michigan, after a similar move by United Technologies Corp's Carrier unit a few weeks after Trump's election win in November.

Some Mexicans questioned whether Trump would be as tough on the country once bound by the responsibilities of office.

"Campaign promises are one thing, but what you're going to do as president is a different matter," said Pedro Pena, a worker at a parcel delivery firm in Ixmiquilpan, a town north of Mexico City which many migrants have left for the United States.

Nevertheless, Pena Nieto is not in a strong position. His approval ratings are the lowest for any president in years, and there is simmering discontent over a gasoline price hike this month that spurred nationwide protests and looting.

"Pena Nieto is a cancer, he is inept, people don't want him there," said Efrain Monter, a retired engineer in Actopan in the central state of Hidalgo. "He promised lots of things, to lower electricity prices, water and now he is doing the opposite."

(Additional reporting by Veronica Gomez, Michael O'Boyle, Lizbeth Diaz, Carlos Jasso, Christine Murray, Alexandra Alper and Noe Torres; Writing by Dave Graham; Editing by Simon Gardner and Grant McCool)

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 Reuters International