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Mexican Trade Delegation Will Try To Head Off Trump's Planned Tariffs

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Mexico's ambassador to the U.S. says her country is willing to talk about President Trump's threat to impose tariffs. But Martha Barcena says there's only so much that Mexico can do to meet a demand to stop migration.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTHA BARCENA: We act out of deep-rooted principles, and there is a clear limit to what we can negotiate. And that limit is Mexican dignity.

INSKEEP: NPR's Franco Ordonez reports that Mexican officials are preparing targeted counter tariffs. Antonio Ortiz-Mena is with us this morning. He's a former trade negotiator for the Mexican government. He's in our studios.

Good morning.

ANTONIO ORTIZ-MENA: Good morning.

INSKEEP: How is Mexico's dignity involved here?

ORTIZ-MENA: Well, I would say that Mexico's doing basically all it can to deal with this very complicated issue, and it can do things if it thinks it's its own self-interest. Or, in engaging with the U.S., I would say that U.S. pressure could be counterproductive. Mexico could work in spite of U.S. pressure, not because of U.S. pressure.

INSKEEP: I don't understand what you mean by that.

ORTIZ-MENA: For example, if the Mexican president is perceived as asking just to please the U.S. president, he could get a lot of political flak back home.

INSKEEP: Oh, meaning that if the U.S. phrases a request as a humiliating demand, it's actually bad for Mexican officials politically.

ORTIZ-MENA: That is correct.

INSKEEP: With that said, you said Mexicans - Mexico's doing everything that it can. Is that really true? Mexico couldn't do more to secure its own southern border against Central American migrants who are heading through to the United States, for example?

ORTIZ-MENA: Well, I would say that it is a very complicated issue. And Mexico has to balance, you know, restrictions on the budget. You know, it does not have as much resource as the U.S. can. It has to balance enforcement with human rights issues and international legal commitments. It's a balancing act.

INSKEEP: So let me mention the thing that we heard from Franco Ordonez, our correspondent, who said that Mexico is preparing, if necessary, counter tariffs. I guess if you're going to put tariffs on in this situation, you want to damage the other guy without damaging your own economy. What can Mexico do to the United States?

ORTIZ-MENA: Well, ideally to reach a negotiated settlement without starting in a tit-for-tat.

INSKEEP: Yeah, but what...

ORTIZ-MENA: If that is not successful...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

ORTIZ-MENA: ...I would say to impose tariffs on a number of U.S. agriculture products because Mexico can neither source domestically or buy from third countries. So you do not bear a high cost by imposing these tariffs.

INSKEEP: Oh, is Mexico a little like China? It's been buying a lot of food from the United States?

ORTIZ-MENA: Yes, it buys a lot of grains, corn, beans, pork, beef. But, you know, we have Brazil. We have Argentina. So there are additional sources there.

INSKEEP: Oh, you can go somewhere else.

ORTIZ-MENA: That's right.

INSKEEP: But let me ask about one other thing. The U.S. tariffs, if they were to go into effect, they will be, as we have learned on this program many times during these trade wars - they'll be taxes paid by U.S. consumers primarily. That's where the primary damage will be. Would it maybe be a realistic course for Mexico to say to the United States, you want to tax yourselves? Go ahead.

ORTIZ-MENA: I would say that is exactly the right course. You know, if you want to impose an - impose a tax on your consumers and also your producers because there's a lot of intra-firm, intra-industry trade, joint supply chains, go ahead and tax your U.S. consumers. Tax U.S. producers. Why should Mexico tax Mexican consumers?

INSKEEP: Although Mexico would suffer in some ways if there were U.S. tariffs on products from Mexico, isn't that right?

ORTIZ-MENA: Absolutely. It would be joint pain. It wouldn't be just Mexico pain. The U.S. would be hurting both countries.

INSKEEP: Mr. Ortiz-Mena, thanks for coming by.

ORTIZ-MENA: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: Antonio Ortiz-Mena is a former trade negotiator for the Mexican government. And he is now a senior vice president at the global advisory firm the Albright Stonebridge Group. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.