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Meeting with Trump further damages President Enrique Pena Nieto's image in Mexico.

President Enrique Pena Nieto, already considered the most unpopular president in modern Mexican history, further hurt his legacy with his decision to invite US presidential candidate Donald Trump to Mexico City for a private meeting. The decision to invite Trump, who is highly unpopular in Mexico, came from a divided Cabinet, with Finance Secretary Luis Videgaray strongly pushing for the visit and Foreign Relations Secretary Claudia Ruiz Massieu and Interior Secretary Miguel Angel Osorio Chong reportedly in strong opposition. A day after Trump's visit, reports surfaced that Ruiz Massieu had offered her resignation. The foreign relations ministry (Secretarfa de Relaciones Exteriores, SRE), however, denied she had done so. Videgaray tendered his resignation on Sept. 6, and left office immediately.

Trump's visit to Mexico came a few days before Pena Nieto was scheduled to deliver the fourth annual state-of-the-nation report. Osorio Chong presented the written document to the Mexican Congress, which complied with the president's obligation under the Mexican Constitution.

However, Pena Nieto broke a 70-year tradition whereby the sitting executive held a nationally televised news conference to highlight the content of the report. Pena Nieto opted instead to hold a series of meetings with young people around the country to discuss the state of the nation.

The most unpopular president in the modern era

Pena Nieto's decision to keep a low profile is perhaps a reflection of his low standing in the polls. The latest survey, conducted by the daily newspaper Reforma on Aug. 4-7, showed 23% of respondents held a favorable opinion of the president, the lowest standing for any Mexican executive since Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000), who presided over the country during the height of an economic crisis in the mid-1990s (SourceMex, Jan. 3, 1996, and July 24, 1996). The poll, conducted among 1,200 adults around the country, had 3.3% margin of error and a confidence level of 95%.

Pena Nieto's popularity has been eroding over the past several months. A similar poll conducted by Reforma in April showed a favorable opinion of 30% for the president. Other recent polls have also pointed to Pena Nieto's decline in popularity. In July, the daily newspaper El Universal and the polling company Buendia & Laredo conducted a survey showing similar results. The poll, conducted on June 24-28, indicated that 63% of respondents rejected Pena Nieto's performance, compared with 56% in March.

Several factors combined to sink the president's popularity. Significant factors were the surge in crime and insecurity, along with the sluggish economy and the lack of tangible results from the energy, finance, and telecommunications reforms enacted early in the president's term (SourceMex, March 27, 2013, Oct. 23, 2013, and Dec. 18, 2013). The education reforms and a lack of resolution of the conflict with a dissident teachers union in Oaxaca, and other states (SourceMex, May 25, 2016, and July 6, 2016) have also hurt Pena Nieto.

"The structural reforms are at the top of the list of complaints about the president, followed by the lack of action against organized crime, the ongoing conflict with teachers in Oaxaca and the ongoing economic crisis," El Universal said in conjunction with the July poll.

The question of corruption was also on the minds of the people surveyed. This included the corrupt practices of the president, his family, his collaborators, and politicians associated with the governing Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) over the last several years (SourceMex, April 29, 2015, Aug. 26, 2015, and June 22, 2016). A broader theme was the perception that the government was not honest with the citizens.

"The perception of corruption on the part of the federal government increased from 40% last year to 55% this year. Furthermore, seven out of 10 Mexicans believe that Mexico is on the wrong path," said the online news site Publimetro, alluding to the latest Reforma survey. "These results indicate that Pena Nieto is the president with the worst rating since Ernesto Zedillo."

Two cases were of special concern to respondents. One was the government's alleged complicity and cover-up in the murder of 43 students from a teachers college in Guerrero state in September 2014 (SourceMex, Oct. 15, 2014, April 20, 2016, and Aug. 10, 2016). The other was the administration's lack of transparency in explaining the government's role in the Army massacre of 22 people in the community of Tlatlaya in June 2014 (SourceMex, July 8, 2015, and April 27, 2016). The easy escape of notorious drug capo Joaqum "El Chapo" Guzman Loera from a maximum-security penitentiary in July 2015 also hurt the president's popularity (SourceMex, July 15, 2015). Guzman Loera was recaptured six months later (SourceMex, Jan. 20, 2016).

Corruption has often been linked to rising crime and insecurity, which has increased significantly over the past year. Official statistics indicate that the largest number of homicides during Pena Nieto's term in office occurred in 2015.

On top of the big-picture problems, Pena Nieto's personal image continues to face increasing challenges. In late August, a report surfaced that the president plagiarized a large portion of his undergraduate law thesis at Universidad Panamericana in 1991. According to a report published on the online news site Aristegui Noticias, which is managed by investigative journalist Carmen Aristegui, the 200-page thesis, entitled "El presidencialismo mexicano y Alvaro Obregon" (Mexican Presidentialism and Alvaro Obregon), contained 197 plagiarized paragraphs.

"Aristegui Noticias gained access to a broad analysis of Pena Nieto's thesis by a group of specialists and academics who discovered that the thesis was produced with plagiarized materials," said the news site, which checked the paragraphs in question with the original sources. According to the report, Pena Nieto borrowed most heavily from the writings of former President Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado (1982-1988), particularly the document "Estudios de Derecho Constitucional" (Studies of Constitutional Law) without giving him credit. Other authors included several prominent historians and legal experts.

"In our revision of the text [of the thesis] it was evident that Pena Nieto also copied complete paragraphs from books written by Linda Hall, an academic at the University of New Mexico, and historians Enrique Krauze, Alberto Morales Jimenez, Victor Lopez Villafane, Jose Mana Calderon, and Emilio Rabasa," Aristegui Noticias reported. "There was also text from a handful of doctors of law: Diego Valades, Jose de Jesus Orozco Henriquez, Felipe Tena Ramnez, and the recently deceased jurist Jorge Carpizo."

The office of the president initially did not offer comment but later issued a statement downplaying the situation. "It appears that style errors such as quotes without quotation marks or the lack of reference to authors in the bibliography are, twoand-a-half decades later, a matter of journalistic interest," said presidential spokesperson Eduardo Sanchez, pointing out that Pena Nieto met all the requirements needed to graduate as a lawyer from Universidad Panamericana.

A surprising invitation to Trump

Given his poor standing in the polls and the plagiarism scandal, it was a major surprise when Pena Nieto invited US presidential candidate Trump to meet with him in Mexico City. Trump is much reviled in the country for making disparaging comments about immigrants from Mexico and for pushing for the expansion and strengthening of a wall along the US-Mexico border. Trump has proposed that Mexico would pay for construction of the barrier (SourceMex, May 11, 2016, and July 27, 2016).

The details of the private meeting between Trump and Pena Nieto were confusing and contradictory. At a joint press conference, Trump said that the wall had been a topic of conversation between the two men, but that there was no discussion of how the project would be financed. A few hours after the meeting, Pena Nieto sent out a message on Twitter indicating that he had made it clear to Trump that Mexico would not pay for the wall.

Trump was relatively reserved during his public appearance in Mexico, offering low-key comments on immigration and emphasizing a few points to improve the bilateral relationship between the two countries, including cooperation on security, a revision of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and joint efforts to control smuggling of drugs, arms and money. Trump described Pena Nieto as his friend and a "wonderful" president.

Pena Nieto, for his part, described the meeting with Trump as "open and constructive," but later lashed out at the US presidential candidate. "His policy stances could represent a huge threat to Mexico, and I am not prepared to keep my arms crossed and do nothing," Pena Nieto said. "That risk, that threat, must be confronted. I told him that is not the way to build a mutually beneficial relationship for both nations."

In contrast to his almost polite speech in Mexico, Trump offered a defiant message at a subsequent rally in Arizona, where he pledged that an "impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful southern border wall" would be constructed, and that Mexico would pay 100% of it although Mexicans "don't know it yet."

The lack of public condemnation from Pena Nieto during the press conference prompted strong rebukes from critics in Mexico. "The absence of leadership was apparent," columnist Jose Buendia Hegewisch wrote in the daily newspaper Excelsior. "We need someone to speak out on behalf of Mexicans inside and outside our borders."

Buendia Hegewisch and others said there was no reason for Pena Nieto to invite Trump in the first place. "The government and other voices are calling for pragmatism and a connection to a candidate who has a legitimate chance to reach the White House," said the Excelsior columnist. "However, there is no reason to believe that opening up Los Pinos [Mexico's presidential palace] would end the hateful and xenophobic speech that has led other countries to close their doors to this candidate."

The sentiment is shared by most Mexicans. A survey conducted by Reforma suggested that 85% of respondents felt that Pena Nieto's meeting with Trump was a mistake. Furthermore, almost twothird of those who participated said the decision to move forward with Trump's visit lowered their opinion of Pena Nieto.

A divided Cabinet

Later reports indicated deep divisions among Pena Nieto's key Cabinet members, with Finance Secretary Videgaray strongly pushing for invitations to Trump and Democratic Party nominee Hilary Rodham Clinton. According to administration sources, Clinton declined the invitation to meet with Pena Nieto. Foreign Relations Secretary Claudia Ruiz Massieu and Interior Secretary Osorio Chong strongly opposed Trump's visit. According to reports, Videgaray and Pena Nieto moved ahead with the visit without consulting Ruiz Massieu. They also ignored a plea from Osorio Chong to cancel the visit.

There were widespread reports that Ruiz Massieu offered her resignation in the aftermath of Trump's visit, but the president declined to accept it. "Angered by the manner in which her opinion and the stature of her office were ignored, [Ruiz Massieu] presented her resignation, which Pena Nieto rejected," said Raymundo Riva Palacio, a respected columnist for the daily business newspaper El Financiero. The foreign ministry (Secretaria de Relaciones Exteriores, SRE) later issued an official statement denying that Ruiz Massieu had resigned.

Even though Osorio Chong also opposed Trump's visit, he displayed loyalty to his boss when speaking with the media. Osorio Chong said the invitation to Trump "was not a mistake," but later took the opportunity to criticize the US presidential candidate, suggesting that Trump does not understand the complications that his proposals generate.

"[Trump] does not only hurt Mexicans, but the entire world," Osorio Chong told reporters shortly after presenting Pena Nieto's written report to Congress. "That is why we invited him, to expand his awareness. Mexico's president acted to ensure that Mexico's position was clear."

While Ruiz Massieu and Osorio Chong remain in the Cabinet, Videgaray surprisingly tendered his resignation on Sept. 6. He did not explain his departure, other than to say that he would not be assuming another Cabinet post or position in Pena Nieto's government.

Videgaray had come under pressure for proposing a drastic cut in spending in recent federal budgets, and the budget blueprint that the administration had prepared for Congress had a significant reduction in expenditures. However, some observers noted that Videgaray's hand in pushing for Trump's visit might have led to his departure. "Beyond the decisions on the budget, Trump's visit sealed Videgaray's fate, since this contributed to hurting Pena Nieto's image further," said the daily newspaper La Jornada.
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Author:Navarro, Carlos
Publication:SourceMex Economic News & Analysis on Mexico
Geographic Code:1MEX
Date:Sep 7, 2016
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