Why Did Peña Nieto Invite Trump to Mexico?

Protests against the meeting between Donald Trump and Enrique Peña Nieto, in Mexico. Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times
Protests against the meeting between Donald Trump and Enrique Peña Nieto, in Mexico. Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

Mexico’s president, Enrique Peña Nieto, had already had a terrible summer. July was the most murderous month in Mexico since he took office in 2012. Second-quarter results showed negative economic growth for the first time in three years. A survey found his approval rating slipping to 23 percent. And a news report even alleged that he plagiarized nearly a third of his law degree thesis. How could he make it any worse? Only by inviting Donald J. Trump, one of the most hated men in Mexico — so hated that piñatas with his visage are brisk sellers across the country — to his presidential palace.

The curious thing about Mr. Peña Nieto’s latest debacle is how, unlike his other woes, it was totally self-inflicted. There is little tradition of sitting Mexican leaders meeting with American presidential hopefuls, so he was under no pressure to arrange the get-together. And it couldn’t have come at a worse time: the very day of Mr. Trump’s hard-hitting immigration speech, and the day before Mr. Peña Nieto’s state of the union address. Mr. Peña Nieto had even compared Mr. Trump to Hitler.

But in a stupefying decision, last week he sent invitations out to the Democratic hopeful Hillary Clinton and Mr. Trump to come to Mexico, and then conceded, reportedly under pressure from the Trump team, to meet its candidate first, on the fateful Aug. 31.

Mr. Peña Nieto insists that his nation won something from the encounter. “I was very clear — in public and private — in emphasizing that in Mexico we feel wounded and hurt by his announcements about Mexicans,” he wrote in an opinion piece in El Universal newspaper on Thursday. “I expressed that Mexicans deserve respect.”

But most politicians and pundits — and the public — read the scene differently. To them, Mr. Peña Nieto looked weak and submissive in front of a bully who is humiliating their nation. Certainly he lost the opportunity, in his own palace, and as a president to a mere candidate, to state clearly that his country would never pay for a border wall in the United States. His later tweet that he warned Mr. Trump is weak tea, a diplomatic “he said, she said.”

Mr. Trump’s staff claimed meanwhile that he looked presidential and firm in a difficult foreign country — and may have won points with Mexican-American voters. Indeed, Mr. Peña Nieto had been a useful pawn in Mr. Trump’s election campaign. Just consider Mr. Trump’s Arizona immigration speech just hours after the meeting, when the candidate repeated his mantra, “We will build a great wall along the southern border,” and then left a dramatic pause before digging the knife in with, “and Mexico will pay for the wall. One hundred percent.” The Mexican president had failed to move Mr. Trump’s position one iota.

The debacle seems so predictable that it’s hard not to imagine that Mr. Peña Nieto’s advisers deliberately led him to error, in a “House of Cards”-style plot. But the truth is likely one that is harder for Mr. Peña Nieto to find a quick fix for. His problems, including the Trump caper, reflect how ill-suited he is to govern a major country like Mexico.

The president’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, or P.R.I., ruled Mexico for 71 straight years until 2000, through an all-encompassing political machine that the writer Mario Vargas Llosa called “the perfect dictatorship.” Mr. Peña Nieto won back power for his party after 12 years in the wilderness with the promise that it had changed into a dynamic, democratic party that would modernize Mexico. And he was its telegenic leader, with a soap opera star for a first lady. After he won office, newspapers predicted a forthcoming “Mexican miracle.”

But it gradually became apparent that Mr. Peña Nieto and his P.R.I. team were more of the same, representing entrenched interests and out of sync with much of their country. After cartel gunmen and police officers kidnapped 43 student teachers in 2014, the government failed to carry out a satisfactory investigation into the corrupt security forces, despite major protests. That same year it was revealed that Mr. Peña Nieto’s wife was buying a $7 million mansion from a company that received government contracts. He apologized, and his wife gave the house back, but P.R.I. politicians have resisted effective anticorruption laws, defying the popular mood.

The Trump meeting is just par for the course, showing how out of touch he is with his country and the millions of Mexicans living in the United States. Surveys here show an enormous rejection of the Republican candidate; one, by the newspaper Reforma, found that only 3 percent of Mexicans would like to see Mr. Trump as America’s president.

So what was he thinking? Maybe Mr. Peña Nieto gambled that he could change Mr. Trump’s position, and lost. Maybe his low approval ratings sapped his confidence to publicly confront Mr. Trump about the border wall. Maybe he thought he could divert attention from his domestic troubles.

Whatever his motives, the Trump encounter only dug a deeper hole for Mr. Peña Nieto, whose term runs until 2018. The future will show whether his approval ratings tumble even further and how difficult the last two years of his government will be — in a country that desperately needs smart leadership.

Ioan Grillo is the author of Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields and the New Politics of Latin America and a contributing opinion writer.

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