The unspeakable and the inexplicable

Why did Enrique Peña Nieto invite Donald Trump to visit Mexico? that is the question, was it a mistake or a well thought move?

SOME leaders like their governments to be teams of rivals, or big tents or nests of brilliant specialists. Those are not the preferences of Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexico’s president since 2012. He rules through a tight coterie of loyal aides, many of whom worked with him in his previous job as governor of the state of Mexico (which surrounds Mexico City). Whatever their other qualities, they have often seemed impervious both to the imperatives of democratic politics and to the ways of the wider world.

It must have looked like a brainwave to someone in Mr Peña’s inner circle to invite the candidates in the American presidential election to drop by. It would put Mr Peña on the world’s front pages as a statesman able to do business even with Donald Trump, the Republican candidate, who has made Mexico-bashing the leitmotif of his campaign.

Almost any foreign-policy expert would have disabused him of the idea. “It’s a very misguided and highly risky initiative,” says one, Andrés Rozental, a former deputy foreign minister. Mexicans are accustomed to the issues of drugs, migration and trade protectionism surfacing during American election campaigns. But no modern candidate has been as offensive and aggressive as Mr Trump. And it is rare for a Mexican president to host candidates at this stage of an American campaign. Indeed, officials long insisted that the government could not rebut Mr Trump’s falsehoods about Mexico because that would be to intervene in their neighbour’s internal affairs.

Languishing in the polls and needing to convince voters that he could act like a statesman, Mr Trump jumped at the invitation (Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate, no doubt has better things to do). Their hour-long meeting on August 31st at Los Pinos, the presidential palace, did indeed put Mr Peña in the headlines. For many Mexicans, the news was that their president failed to extract a public apology from Mr Trump for his denigration of the country’s migrants as “rapists” and “criminals”.

In a prepared statement, Mr Peña duly gave a long-winded account of how Mexican emigration has fallen sharply, and of how 6m jobs in the United States depend on his country, and how the border should be seen as a “shared opportunity”. “Mr Trump,” he declared, “Mexicans deserve the respect of everyone.”

Mr Trump, looking less ebullient than usual, responded that Mexicans are “amazing people”. Mr Peña can claim some credit for his visitor backing away from his previous threat to discourage American companies from building plants in Mexico. That is now a promise “to keep industry in our hemisphere”—a significant concession. But another of the “shared commitments” Mr Trump read out, without rebuttal, was “the right” to a border wall to keep out migrants. At least he had the tact on this occasion not to ask his host to pay for it, though that is still his policy.

Any Mexican president might struggle to react to Mr Trump. Mr Peña has flip-flopped. He began by ignoring him, on those grounds of non-intervention. Facing domestic criticism, he then gave an interview in which he compared the American businessman’s “strident rhetoric” to that which brought Mussolini and Hitler to power.

The invitation to Mr Trump thus smacked of an attempt by Mr Peña to distract attention from the countless domestic problems he faces. The economy continues to disappoint. The government is visibly divided as to how to handle a rebellion by extremist teachers against its flagship education reform. Violent crime is rising again. A fresh conflict-of-interest allegation has surfaced concerning the First Lady, this one involving a flat in Miami (which she denies owning). And Mr Peña has been accused of plagiarising part of his thesis for his law degree (a claim the university has confirmed). Even before the latest two scandals, his approval rating had fallen to 23%, the lowest recorded for a Mexican president this century. That is the harvest of his peculiar and provincial way of governing.

Mr Peña may believe that he took a bold initiative by opening a dialogue with Mr Trump. His demand for respect is legitimate. But it should be delivered by citizen diplomacy within the United States, and conveyed after the election to the winner. By allowing his visitor to seem presidential, he has helped Mr Trump perform some rhetorical climbdowns that were electorally inevitable. Even if Mrs Clinton wins she will not thank Mr Peña for that. If he turns out to have helped Mr Trump get elected, many Mexicans will never forgive him or his party, and neither will much of the rest of the world.

The Economist | Bello

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