U.S. Chamber of Commerce isn’t supporting Trump’s threat to eliminate NAFTA

MEXICO CITY — The U.S. Chamber of Commerce told a closed-door gathering of Mexican and American corporate and government leaders that it is aiming to keep Donald Trump from fulfilling his campaign threat to tear up the North American Free Trade Agreement, according to three people with direct knowledge of the matter.

Tom Donohue, head of the biggest U.S. business lobbying organization, told members of the U.S.-Mexico CEO Dialogue in Mexico City on Wednesday not to panic and to wait and see what the president-elect proposes once he takes office, said the three people, who spoke about the private event on condition of anonymity. The audience included Cabinet officials from President Enrique Pena Nieto’s administration, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker, and more than 100 business and government leaders.

Donohue’s remarks could deepen the divide between the president-elect and the chamber after they sparred over trade policy during the 2016 campaign. Trump made what he called the unfairness of the U.S. relationship with its biggest trade partners a central theme of his campaign, and he singled out NAFTA, which also includes Canada, as ripe for being gutted or renegotiated.

The discussion around NAFTA only added to tensions that had been building ever since Trump declared his candidacy for president last year, when he called some Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists and later vowed to make Mexico pay for a wall along the border. His comments have been condemned by Mexican business executives, including Mexichem SAB Chairman Juan Pablo del Valle and Cinepolis de Mexico SA Chief Executive Officer Alejandro Ramirez. Pena Nieto likened his rhetoric to that of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.

The CEO Dialogue, held over two days at the Four Seasons hotel in downtown Mexico City, was attended by General Electric Co. Vice Chairman John G. Rice, Alfa SAB Chairman Armando Garza and FedEx Freight Chief Executive Officer Michael Ducker, as well as Mexican Finance Minister Jose Antonio Meade and Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo.

Tom Collamore, senior vice president of communications and strategy, said in an e-mail that the Chamber is supportive of NAFTA but is open to it being updated as necessary.

The chamber helped organize Wednesday’s event, he said, “because 14 million American jobs depend on trade with Mexico and Canada.”

At another gathering of business leaders last month, Guajardo said that he believes Trump will seek to modernize NAFTA without completely abandoning the agreement.

For instance, issues that weren’t included when the deal was negotiated in the early 1990s, such as e-commerce, could be added to the pact, he said.

Mexico is arguably more dependent on trade with the U.S. than any other major world economy. Trade between the two countries has grown five-fold to more than $500 billion in goods annually since NAFTA took effect in 1994, making Mexico the third largest U.S. trade partner, trailing only China and Canada, according to data from the International Monetary Fund. NAFTA, which phased out most tariffs among the three two countries over the past two decades, has proven crucial to Mexico’s emergence as a manufacturing powerhouse.

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