88Demonstrators belonging to a dissident teachers union hold a sign that reads in Spanish “Pena Quit!” CREDIT: AP Photo/Marco Ugarte, File
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto will meet with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump in Mexico City on Wednesday. It’s a move that comes at a low point for the unpopular Nieto, who is eagerly seeking a distraction from the failures of his presidency.
The meeting is occurring during a hostile election season that has seen Mexicans frequently targeted by Trump’s rhetoric on immigration. Most notably, he has accused them of being “rapists” and called, repeatedly, for a wall to be built between the United States and Mexico.
None of this has gone over well in Mexico, a country deeply affected by the illegal drug trade, violence, and extreme poverty, each of which are linked in numerous ways to the ramifications of American foreign policy. Now, in a sudden twist, Trump will meet with Nieto — at Nieto’s own invitation.
Initially, Nieto reportedly invited both Trump and Hillary Clinton to Mexico City for a meeting, in keeping with the country’s history of avoiding American political divisions. According to the AP, the Mexican publication El Universal published an editorial arguing that Nieto’s administration had not anticipated that Trump would be the first to accept the invitation — or that he would accept at all.
Trump’s last-minute trip comes at a critical time for the Republican candidate, who has been slowly softening his stance on immigration in an attempt to woo voters. But it also comes at an important point in Nieto’s presidency.
Elected in 2012, Nieto’s tenure in office has been marred by scandals and unrest. His approval rating hovered around 30 percent in April, with 66 percent of Mexicans dissatisfied with his leadership performance, a historic low. Nieto’s lack of popularity is understandable. A member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Nieto’s election was intended to usher in reform and economic stability. However, the president soon found himself embroiled in scandal. In September 2014, forty-three students disappeared from the city of Iguala, located in the state of Guerrero. Despite months of rioting, Nieto’s administration was slow to investigate the case, and many protesters accused the government of intimidation tactics in addition to inefficiency. It would be several months before investigators finally conceded that the students had likely been murdered, a revelation that went over poorly in a country already deeply suspicious of its leadership.
The Iguala kidnappings (and subsequent murders) are not the only source of Nieto’s unpopularity. In November 2014, a prominent Mexican journalist published a damning investigation into the ownership of Nieto’s wife’s house. The registered owner was affiliated with a business group backed financially by the government — a serious conflict of interest. Known as the “Casa Blanca” (or, “White House”) scandal, the issue quickly became a source of public anger and resentment. The problem worsened when Nieto was connected to another house with dubious ownership, and then another.
This past July, Nieto issued an apology for the housing debacle and vowed to do better as a leader. While unprecedentedly candid, his mea culpa failed to boost his approval ratings, and Mexicans remain displeased with his job performance.
If Nieto hoped that inviting both major American presidential candidates to Mexico City would serve to distract from his current problems at home, the plan is already backfiring. Many Mexicans seem baffled as to why their president has willingly invited Trump, a man famous for his xenophobic rhetoric, into their country. Some are completely enraged, and see the invitation as yet another strike against an already deeply unpopular president.
The president of Mexican Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee has asked for Nieto’s meeting with Trump to be canceled, and many Mexicans are planning to protest the visit.
Meanwhile, the Clinton campaign has also taken the opportunity to strike at the visit. The campaign’s website has published a “refresher” on everything Trump has said about Mexico on Twitter. The list is extensive.