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Learn more about the key NAFTA negotiators

Official three-way talks start Wednesday.

by Eric Martin and Josh Wingrove 

President Donald Trump has set the terms for revamping the North American Free Trade Agreement: Cut the U.S. trade deficit or he’ll walk away. That could entail convincing Mexico and Canada to commit to buy more American products. The White House will have its work cut out for it, but leading the charge is an aggressive group of trade players who aren’t used to taking no for an answer. Billionaire Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross built his fortune investing in distressed companies, while U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer served as a negotiator in the Reagan administration during its trade battles against Japan in the 1980s. 

Mexico and Canada are bringing out their A-game too, with trade teams that can boast recent successes. Canada just sealed an accord with the European Union, while Mexico has reached 11 such agreements with 44 countries since NAFTA took effect more than two decades ago. Will they replicate those wins with an updated NAFTA pact? Only time will tell.

Some of the U.S. negotiating objectives could put them on a collision course, if there are shifts in areas ranging from the auto sector to dispute settlement systems. With official three-way talks starting on Aug. 16, 2017, we’ll see if the U.S. will find its goals out of reach or whether Mexico and Canada are willing to budge on key issues to save the trading relationship.

Let’s look at a few of the key government negotiators.

  • Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross - The Wall Street guru made his fortune as a vulture investor acquiring and modernizing troubled corporations before reselling them. He’s dubbed by Trump as one of the world’s greatest negotiators. He sees NAFTA talks finishing by early 2018.
  • Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer - Once the deputy trade representative in the Reagan White House, he’s also spent decades as a trade lawyer representing clients including steelmakers. As USTR, Lighthizer is by law the president’s principal adviser on trade policy and the country’s main representative during trade negotiations. Three monthis into the job, he's steering the USTR office in a more protectionist direction.
  • Assistant USTR for Western Hemisphere John Melle - With almost three decades of experience at the USTR office, Melle has spent the last six years overseeing U.S. trade initiatives in the Americas. Lighthizer has delegated day-to-day oversight of the talks to Melle, who will serve as chief negotiator getting down in the nitty gritty details.
  • Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland - One of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s top officials, Freeland was appointed largely to deal with the Trump administration. An ex-trade minister, Freeland knows Ross from her previous career as a journalist and led Trudeau’s successful push to revive and revise its EU trade deal when protectionist sentiments nearly scuttled it.
  • Ambassador to Washington David MacNaughton - While Trudeau and Freeland are the faces of Canada’s team, MacNaughton will play a backroom-dealmaker role, pressing the Canadian case in Washington. The former lobbyist has been spearheading a campaign to woo Trump, his officials, the U.S. Congress, industry and governors to preach the virtue of trade with Canada.
  • Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney - Mulroney, a Progressive Conservative, in the 1980s led the push for the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, a NAFTA precursor, and then NAFTA talks themselves. Long since out of politics, he’s now an informal emissary for Trudeau, whose Liberals were once his top rival. Mulroney is a friend of Trump — serenading him at his Mar-a-Lago resort this year — and a neighbor of Ross in Florida. 
  • Mexican Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo - Raised in the northern industrial and business hub of Monterrey, Guajardo headed the NAFTA office in the Mexican Embassy in Washington during the early years of the pact's implementation. He oversaw Mexico’s team in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, which Trump withdrew the U.S. from.
  • Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray - Few personalities in the nation’s politics loom as large as Videgaray. He served as President Enrique Pena Nieto’s finance minister until September — when he left under criticism for working with Jared Kushner to organize then-candidate Trump’s controversial trip to Mexico. Brought back into the cabinet in January, Videgaray’s closeness to Pena Nieto and the White House ensures him a seat at the table.
  • Mexican Chief Technical Negotiator Kenneth Smith RamosSmith, who heads the NAFTA office in the Mexican Embassy in Washington, started his professional career as a negotiator on the original NAFTA team. He has also worked at Mexico’s Agriculture Ministry, where he was responsible for farm trade negotiations and international cooperation.

--With assistance from Andrew Mayeda and Dave Merrill.

To contact the authors of this story: Eric Martin in Mexico City at [email protected]

Josh Wingrove in Ottawa at [email protected]

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Sarah McGregor at [email protected]

Randy Woods

© 2017 Bloomberg L.P

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