At University of Texas, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson calls for modernizing NAFTA

While visiting his alma mater on Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the North American Free Trade Agreement is due for an update.

The North American Free Trade Agreement is an important accord for the region — but it's also due for an update, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Thursday during a speech at the University of Texas at Austin.

“I’m a Texan, a former energy executive and also a rancher. I understand how important NAFTA is for our economy and that of the continent,” Tillerson said. But, he added, “it should come as no surprise” that a 30-year-old agreement negotiated before the advent of digital economies and China’s rise to prominence on the world economic stage would “need to be modernized.”

The former ExxonMobil CEO visited his alma mater on the cusp of a weeklong swing through Latin America. He heads Thursday evening to Mexico, and then on to Argentina, Peru, Colombia and Jamaica.

The State Department has said the trip is centered on the “crisis in Venezuela,” where the United States has imposed financial sanctions in an attempt to spur democratic change. But many are more focused on Tillerson's visit to Mexico and its potential impact on ongoing debate over NAFTA.

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Tillerson on Thursday took a softer stance on NAFTA than his boss, President Donald Trump, who has proposed to renegotiate — and, at times, even to terminate — the decades-old trade agreement between the United States, Mexico and Canada.

The question over NAFTA's future is particularly urgent in Texas, whose top trade partner is Mexico, with hundreds of billions of dollars generated in two-way trade each year.

Gov. Greg Abbott has praised NAFTA and said he wants it to continue. The fate of the trade deal could turn on the results of Mexico’s July 1 presidential election, as candidates have taken drastically different stances on the issue.

Tillerson also spoke about the region more broadly, emphasizing that collaboration among countries Western hemisphere would bolster all their economies. But that economic growth can only spring from strong, stable governments, he said. 

“For prosperity to take root, we must create the conditions for regional stability,” Tillerson said. “Our approach is holistic: We must address security and development issues side by side.”

Squarely in Tillerson’s crosshairs was Venezuela, whose regime he decried as corrupt and exploitative. He is expected to discuss the situation there with Latin American leaders on his upcoming trip, though he will not visit Venezuela itself.

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"Venezuelans are starving, looting is common and the sick do not receive the medical attention they desperately need," Tillerson says. "There has been no natural disaster. The Venezuelan people suffer because of a corrupt regime that steals from its own people."

He had similar words for Cuba, where an upcoming regime change is an “opportunity ... to take a new direction.”

“The future of our relationship is up to Cuba,” he said.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin and ExxonMobil have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.