Mexico’s President Enrique Peña has admitted he made a mistake when he invited Donald Trump to visit his country in August, describing the decision as “hasty.”
In an interview with Mexican daily La Razón, the president – whose popularity ratings continue to fall as he approaches his final two years in office, hitting a new low in September of 23% – says that in hindsight, he would have “done things differently.”
Peña Nieto’s decision to speak out now is related to Trump’s falling popularity
Peña Nieto faces mounting problems: last week, the governor of the state of Veracruz, Javier Duarte, a member of the ruling (Institutional Revolutionary Party) PRI, fled after the United States issued a warrant for his arrest on racketeering charges. Investigations are also underway into several other senior members of the PRI related to drug trafficking and corruption.
But Trump’s visit was a particularly embarrassing moment, and not just for Peña Nieto but also for the whole nation. The Republican presidential candidate not only refused to apologize for his innumerable insults about Mexicans during the US presidential campaign or his plans to build a wall along the US–Mexico border, he turned the meeting with Peña Nieto into just another campaign stunt. Hours after returning to the United States he spoke at a rally in Arizona, telling the crowd: “Mexico will pay for the wall: 100%. They don’t know it yet, but they will pay for the wall.”
The fallout was toxic. Peña Nieto came forward immediately to try to limit the damage, giving interviews and writing articles for leading publications. “Trump is a huge threat and I cannot stand by and do nothing: my obligation is to defend Mexico,” he said.
In the days that followed the visit, splits emerged in Mexico’s cabinet. The foreign minister and the interior minister both made it clear they hadn’t supported the idea, and media reports soon placed the blame for the invitation on finance minister Luis Videgaray, who was obliged to resign.
Trump’s visit was embarrassing not just for Peña Nieto but the whole nation
Now, almost two months after the affair, and with Trump trailing in the polls, Peña Nieto has decided to fully accept the blame. “This should never have happened and I accept full responsibility for it,” he told La Razón. “I think I made a very hasty decision. It was very controversial; today it would probably be different. I have already explained many times why I sought a meeting with both candidates, and it was to look after the interests of Mexico and the Mexican people,” he said.
In his defense, Peña Nieto pointed out that at the time of the invitation, Trump and Hillary Clinton were almost neck and neck in the polls. He said that Trump replied immediately to the invitation. “The reply was ‘yes, I accept the invitation and I am on my way to Mexico.’ It was very much a ‘take it or leave it’ situation. I said, what I’m looking for is a meeting, and what’s more, I don’t agree with the Republican candidate’s position, and I think we need a better understanding of the importance of the relationship between Mexico and the United States.”
It seems clear that Peña Nieto’s decision to speak out now is related to Trump’s falling popularity. With Clinton looking like she’s heading for a landslide win, Mexico needs to move forward and leave the mistakes of the past behind. Peña Nieto is also running out of time: the country goes to the polls in July of 2018. His party is losing ground, as was shown in recent local and regional elections, with voters punishing the PRI for one corruption scandal after another, as well as the government’s failure to tackle drugs cartels, symbolized by the murder of 43 students in Ayotzinapa in 2014, for which nobody has yet been held to account.
Jockeying has already begun within the PRI among the presidential hopefuls in 2018, but in keeping with the long-standing tradition of the PRI, it is the outgoing president who has the final say on who will succeed him. And once Peña Nieto has done that, he knows that he is a lame duck. So now is the time to make amends for past mistakes, and Trump’s visit is a good place to start.
English version by Nick Lyne.