Mexico Names Chief Negotiator for Nafta Talks

By Juan Montes Features Dow Jones Newswires

Mexico appointed its chief negotiator in coming talks to rewrite the North American Free Trade Agreement, giving the role to a career bureaucrat with 20 years of experience in trade negotiations who heads the trade office at Mexico's embassy in Washington, D.C.

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Kenneth Smith, a 47-year-old trade expert with a master's degree in international economics at Johns Hopkins University, will lead the day-to-day technical negotiations in the talks between Mexico, the U.S. and Canada, Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo said Monday.

Mr. Smith has a reputation for knowing the ins and outs of Nafta. He formed part of Mexico's team that negotiated the pact in the early 1990s and coordinated implementation of Nafta at the Economy Ministry from 2002 to 2007. Since 2013, he has headed the trade and Nafta office at the embassy in Washington.

His name, along with that of Deputy Economy Minister Juan Carlos Baker, was floated in recent days by businessmen and government officials as the favorite to lead the negotiations for Mexico. His detailed knowledge of Nafta, and the fact that he is based in Washington, tipped the balance in his favor, a senior government official said.

"He is a very talented man who has spent a great part of his life dealing with Nafta," the official added. "Being there, he can have the best sense of what we need in terms of the negotiation."

The administration of President Donald Trump set the reduction of U.S. trade deficits with its North American partners as its top trade priority. The U.S. had a $63 billion deficit with Mexico in goods trade last year. Washington has ruled out the use of trade tariffs or quotas -- which Mexico viewed as a worst-case scenario -- but its proposed deficit target worries Mexican officials, as it could open the door to controlled trade between the two nations.

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A successful renegotiation of Nafta is critical for Mexico, which sends almost 80% of its exports north of the border. Exports represent around a third of its gross domestic product.

The first round of the negotiations is scheduled to be held in Washington on Aug. 16-20. The three countries want to reach an agreement by the end of the year to avoid political distractions, as Mexico holds presidential elections in the middle of next year and the U.S. faces midterm elections.

Mr. Smith's U.S. counterpart will be John Melle, the assistant U.S. Trade Representative for the Western Hemisphere.

Mr. Smith is a Mexican born of British descendant. He is seen as an efficient and disciplined public servant, a top businessman said. After a brief spell in the private sector in the late 1990s, when he was a consultant at North South Trade and Investment, an international consultancy firm, he has spent his entire career in the public sector.

From 2010 to 2012, he served as the coordinator of international affairs at the Agriculture Ministry, where he coordinated agricultural trade negotiations and promoted Mexican exports. He also coordinated international affairs at Mexico's competition commission from 2007 to 2010.

Write to Juan Montes at juan.montes@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

July 31, 2017 19:28 ET (23:28 GMT)