By Dave Graham and Frank Jack Daniel
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Senior White House advisor Jared Kushner began a visit to Mexico on Wednesday to try to fix rifts over trade, drugs and immigration but many in the host country were skeptical he could repair the damaged relationship.
Mexican diplomats and opposition leaders said that although Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, is seen in Mexico as dovish, tensions are running high.
Kushner is also perceived in Mexico as having lost power in the White House after a dispute over U.S. government security clearance.
“He is very weakened, and he is going to get weaker. More than anything, what he comes to say here will be contradicted by Trump the next day,” said Agustin Basave, a senior opposition lawmaker in the Party of the Democratic Revolution.
Kushner was to meet Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto on Wednesday afternoon, despite criticism from Mexican former diplomats and others who say the U.S. envoy is below the president’s station in terms of protocol.
A senior U.S. official said one goal of Kushner’s trip was to smooth tensions that erupted when Trump and Pena Nieto had a testy phone call last month – leading to the shelving of a planned meeting between the two leaders.
Kushner held talks with Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray earlier on Wednesday.
The two have a warm relationship that has given Videgaray more access to the White House over the past year than Mexican leaders are used to.
They were due to address security, drugs, crime, corruption and trade, the U.S. official said.
The renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which is mainly handled by other departments, was not due to be discussed, the official said.
MEXICO MINISTER CRITICIZED
Videgaray has faced criticism for the emphasis he puts in his relationship with Kushner, and for announcing a Trump-Pena Nieto meeting was in the works only for it to collapse.
Questions about the visit were even raised by officials in Mexico’s foreign ministry, who fret that traditional diplomacy has been weakened by Videgaray’s focus on personal contacts.
Mexico’s foreign policy relations with the United States have become “extremely illogical,” said one senior diplomat on Wednesday. Another said officials were taken by surprise by the visit and frustrated they were not informed.
Kushner, a wealthy New York businessman married to Trump’s daughter Ivanka, has not received his full security clearance because of his extensive financial links, which have taken a long time to examine. He has lost access to valuable intelligence, U.S. officials said.
Trump, who has called Mexican illegal immigrants “rapists” and wants Mexico to pay for a border wall, is deeply unpopular in Mexico. He launched a new tirade on Monday saying Mexico needed to do more to stop drugs flowing north.
Despite the concerns about Kushner’s visit, Pena Nieto and Videgaray’s strategy of trying to engage with the Trump administration received support from unexpected quarters, including the left-wing opposition frontrunner for Mexico’s presidential election in July.
“My desire is that the visit by Donald Trump’s relative to meet President Pena is for the good of both nations,” said candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. “Dialogue, seeking understanding is much better than confrontation.”
His view was echoed by a leader of Pena Nieto’s ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party in Congress.
“(The visit) is recognition by Trump that he’s made relations with Mexico too tense,” said congressman Victor Manuel Giorgana. “It is not in U.S. interests to have such open confrontation with Mexico.”
(Additional reporting by Gabriel Stargardter and Michael O’Boyle in Mexico City and Steve Holland in Washington; Editing by Alistair Bell)