By meeting with U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, has Enrique Peña Nieto committed yet another calamitous faux pas in his endlessly controversial career as president of Mexico?
Analysts up and down the nation were left scratching their heads after Trump accepted a surprise invitation to rub shoulders with Peña Nieto in Mexico City this week. Even though he later tried to explain the importance of dialogue between neighbors, few could understand why such an unpopular president would risk cozying up to Mexico’s arch nemesis amid the heat of the U.S election cycle.
Most analysts concur that Peña Nieto’s play backfired badly, with Trump getting the better of the encounter by a wide margin. Guadalajara daily Mural summed up the feelings of many Mexicans, running the headline Thursday: “Trump Uses EPN” (the Mexican president’s initials).
“People here don’t like it when their leaders play the role of the doormat, and on the street some could view this as treason,” Macario Schettino, a professor of politics at Mexico’s Tec de Monterrey University, told The Wall Street Journal. “Having made the mistake of inviting him, the only way to rescue it was to show backbone. But he didn’t. He was weak.”
The general consensus south-of-the-border is that Peña Nieto failed to use the opportunity to demand an apology or publicly admonish Trump for his abhorrent comments regarding Mexican immigrants and insistence that Mexico will pay for a border wall.
In fact, the Mexican president appeared overly obliging and welcoming, a far cry from several months ago when he compared Trump to Hitler and Mussolini. Editorials in newspapers the following day remarked on how presidential Trump had appeared, speculating that his trip to Mexico might even give him a bounce in the polls.
Although few details were revealed about the content of the behind-closed-doors discussion, it was clear from their statements following the meeting that the Republican candidate was diplomatically softening his usually inflammatory rhetoric in a bid to seem like a proper statesman – something he rarely has an opportunity to do on the stump. Trump described the meeting as “excellent,” noting the pair had not discussed the border wall, although Peña Nieto stated that at the start of the encounter he had categorically told Trump that Mexico would not be paying for it.
A few hours later, and back on American soil, Trump was his old self once more, telling a whipped up audience in Phoenix that “100 percent Mexico will pay for the wall.” To the dismay of many, that speech was a reaffirmation that the Republican candidate has no plans to moderate his bullish immigration stance, promising to set up a “new special deportation task force” and start deporting undocumented foreigners from his first day in office. Any hope mainstream Republicans might have had that Trump was prepared to “pivot” toward a more realistic immigration strategy all but died with this uncompromising discourse.
As for Peña Nieto, his blunder will only cause his favorability ratings to drop ever further. (He is currently the most unpopular president in Mexico’s history.) Already mired in scandal over his wife’s property dealings and the revelation that he plagiarized his university thesis, the country’s lackluster economic numbers show no signs of improvement. The slew of reforms he passed so adroitly at the start of his administration have yet to revitalize the economy or have any significant impact on the living standards of millions of Mexicans. As a virtual lame duck president with two years of his six-year term to go, he is in danger of becoming a joke figure and a huge liability to his party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), as the 2018 presidential election approaches.