For Enrique Peña Nieto, Trump’s visit came at a precarious time in the Mexican president’s tenure.
Initially portrayed as Mexico’s savior, Peña Nieto’s rule has been marked by a series of scandals. Most recently: The alleged cronyism regarding the first lady’s use of a luxurious apartment owned by a government contractor; and a new investigation suggesting that 28 percent of Peña Nieto’s undergraduate thesis was plagiarized. (Famously, he was asked to name his three favorite books during his run at the presidency and he could not name even one.) According to the latest poll by Mexican newspaper Reforma, more than 60 percent of Mexicans disapprove of Peña’s work as president, making him the most reviled president in two decades. This surmounting level of unpopularity is perhaps one of the only points of comparison between Peña Nieto and Donald Trump, who came to Mexico City on Wednesday, the day before the Mexican president was set to give his annual State of the Union address.
Trump’s invitation was a public relations catastrophe, as the country remains in disbelief. The day before the would-be American president arrived, Peña Nieto’s chief of staff, Luis Videgaray, sounded almost apologetic in an interview, stating that Peña Nieto’s “acted as any head of state would” (and that he had invited Clinton, too), and added that the visit, was an unprecedented moment in U.S.-Mexico’s relations, and stressed the importance of the Mexican relationship with the northern neighbor. The risk of receiving Trump was high, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance for Peña Nieto to restore a sense of lost pride, for himself and for the population he represents.
Mexicans’ hatred for the Republican candidate runs deep, and the Trump piñata business is booming here. Trump, “a joke,” has bashed Mexico—and Mexicans—by generally characterizing the country as rife with criminality, which they export to north. During his visit, in typical form, Trump sang a different tune, calling Mexicans “wonderful” and “amazing” people and “beyond reproach,” as opposed to the “rapists” and “killers” he once said some of them were. Oh, and he loves Hispanics.
Trump’s visit boiled social media in Mexico into a collective outrage. The hashtag #TrumpNoEresBienvenido (Trump, you are not welcomed) became a trending topic, and Mexico’s ex-president, Vicente Fox, confronted the candidate head-on, calling him a liar and pressuring him to apologize. The former first lady, Margarita Zavala, tweeted “We don’t want him.” Leo Zuckerman, an influential political analyst, who called Peña’s mandate a disaster, said the invitation was a very risky move, one that would only be justified if Peña Nieto stood up to Trump’s divisive rhetoric.
He did not. Trump and Peña Nieto had an hour-long meeting. During the subsequent press conference, Peña Nieto expressed his respect for the U.S. democratic process and his willingness to collaborate with the candidate. Trump, seemingly a bit subdued, spoke about “the contributions of millions of Mexican-American,” later adding that he and Peña Nieto had discussed Trump’s proposed wall between the two countries, but not who would pay for it..
Trump offered no apologies.
A couple of hours later, as if he had just remembered to mention it, Peña tweeted that he had told Trump that Mexico would not pay for the Republican presidential candidate’s proposed wall along the border. A few hours later, in Arizona, Trump said the following: “The wall will be great, along the southern border. And Mexico will pay for the wall: 100 percent. They don’t know it yet. They have great leaders. But they will pay for the wall.”
Peña Nieto, apparently, begged to differ.
Back in Mexico, the whole thing felt like a nightmare. The meeting legitimized Trump’s draconian immigration policies. Peña Nieto appeared later that night in the most popular TV news program in Mexico and stated that he had acted in the country’s best interests. Daniel Moreno, the Chief Editor of Animal Politico, an influential news website, said that the press conference reflected the national mood: “We have no one to care for us, we are alone.”
While giving his speech in Arizona, the Republican candidate said: “Nobody owns trump.” Pena Nieto proved him right.
Related: Trump Watch [Tablet series]
Alan Grabinsky is a freelance writer and journalist based in Mexico City, covering Jewish life and urban issues for international media.