Mexico: Pena Nieto’s meeting with Trump sparks outcry

Protesters ask why President Pena Nieto met presidential candidate who has called Mexicans “rapists” and “criminals”.

Trump protest
Trump's visit comes as President Pena Nieto's popularity is hitting a record low [Alex Cruz/EPA]

Mexico CityMaria Eugenia Arguello, 52, summarises in three words what Donald Trump’s visit to Mexico makes her feel: “Indignation, shame and anger.

“How can the president invite someone to our country who has offended us, who has humiliated us, who has treated us badly as Mexicans?”

The US Republican presidential candidate’s fleeting visit to Mexico is likely to have lasting repercussions, as Mexicans question President Enrique Pena Nieto’s judgment in meeting Trump in the capital.

On Wednesday afternoon a dozen protesters lingered at the Angel of Independence, an iconic statue on Avenida Reforma that is a frequent meeting point for rallies and marches.

While the protest was called for midday, it dragged into the afternoon as people arrived after leaving work.

The protesters shared frustration and anger at the last-minute visit, which comes on the heels of a scandal revealing that Pena Nieto plagiarised his undergraduate university thesis.

Eduardo Rivera Garcia, 66, is a retired middle-school teacher from Mexico City. His family is from the state of Guanajuato, and many of his relatives have migrated to the US.

He says his family members in California and Wisconsin “tell us about the elections and that they are very concerned”.

He is perplexed that Pena Nieto extended an invitation to Trump, saying: “If I had a neighbour who was kicking at my door and verbally abusing my family, I wouldn’t invite them into my home.”

Trump made a series of inflammatory comments about Mexico early on in his campaign, calling the country a source of “rapists” and “criminals” coming to the US. If elected, he has pledged to “build a wall” on the US border with Mexico.

Conciliatory rhetoric

Pena Nieto had gone as far as to compare Trump to Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, but in recent weeks his critical stance softened. Earlier this month he extended invitations to both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to come to Mexico.

In all likelihood, he did not expect Trump to accept. But in a whirlwind of tweets and media speculation, Trump arrived on Wednesday afternoon at the Benito Juarez International Airport and was whisked in a helicopter to the presidential residence, known as Los Pinos.

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The press conference following the private meeting was surprisingly cordial considering the acidic rhetoric of Trump’s campaign.

Pena Nieto appeared conciliatory and focused on the importance of the bilateral relationship, without directly addressing Trump’s rhetoric on undocumented immigration and free trade.

He suggested that working as “true friends, good neighbours and strategic allies” would allow both countries to meet common goals and “overcome misunderstandings”.

Yet for many Mexicans, Trump’s statements on Mexico are not mere “misunderstandings”.

In particular, Trump’s visit left unresolved the question of the border wall, for which he says Mexico should foot the bill.

In the press conference, Trump said he did not discuss with Pena Nieto which country would pay for the wall.

Pena Nieto’s spokesperson later back-pedalled, saying that Pena Nieto told Trump that Mexico would not pay for the wall. However, Pena Nieto missed the opportunity to make this point clear from the start and appeared deferential to Trump, instead of being defiant as many Mexicans would have preferred.  

Agustín Barrios Gomez, an outgoing congressman of the Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD) representing Mexico City, told Al Jazeera: “I see the upside for Donald Trump, but I don’t see any upside here for Pena Nieto.”

Slumping popularity

It is becoming hard to keep track of the scandals and abuses plaguing the Pena Nieto administration.

The disappearance of 43 college students from Guerrero state remains unresolved after almost two years, along with the Casa Blanca scandal that implicated Pena Nieto in shady business deals with government contractors.

Details have emerged in recent months of extrajudicial killings by army and police forces in the towns of Tlatlaya and Tanhuato. And just last week, Mexican journalist Carmen Aristegui released an investigation showing that Pena Nieto had plagiarised his 1991 undergraduate thesis at the Panamerican University.

Polls in early August by the Mexican newspaper Reforma found only 22 percent approval ratings for the president, the lowest for any president since Ernesto Zedillo in the late 1990s.

Trump’s visit could drag these numbers even lower.

At the Angel of Independence, retired middle-school teacher Rivera Garcia predicted that Pena Nieto “is going to have to pay the political cost of inviting Trump”.

While the scandals have mounted, it is hard to see any major changes in the remaining two years of Pena Nieto’s six-year term.

His Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI) formed the “Pact for Mexico” with the PRD and the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) at the start of his administration to push wide-reaching reforms in education, energy, health and finance.

The reforms are moving forward despite protests, and neither the PRD nor the PAN have indicated plans to break ranks with the president’s reforms.

Looking beyond this administration, the PRI lost ground in the June mid-term elections and is struggling to put forward a candidate for the 2018 presidential elections.

Barrios Gomez said: “The administration is very insular and they don’t consult anyone outside their circle. They just keep making the same mistakes.”

The Trump visit appears to be another episode in Pena Nieto’s long, slow slide to the bottom. 

Protesters gathered in Los Angeles, urging Latinos in the US to register to vote against Trump [Eugene Garcia/EPA]
Protesters gathered in Los Angeles, urging Latinos in the US to register to vote against Trump [Eugene Garcia/EPA]

Source: Al Jazeera