By Azam Ahmed and Elisabeth Malkin
New York Times
MEXICO CITY >> If President Enrique Pena Nieto invited Donald Trump to visit Mexico for a dialogue in the interest of democracy, the message has fallen on deaf ears.
Instead, the predominant feeling here in the Mexican capital is one of betrayal.
“It’s a historic error,” said Enrique Krauze, a well-known historian. “You confront tyrants, you don’t appease them.”
On Mexico’s most popular morning television show Wednesday, a livid Krauze likened the president’s meeting with Trump to the decision by Neville Chamberlain, then the British prime minister, to sit down with Hitler in Munich in 1938.
“It isn’t brave to meet in private with somebody who has insulted and denigrated” Mexicans, Krauze said. “It isn’t dignified to simply have a dialogue.”
Yes, many Mexicans say, it was Trump who offended the people of Mexico with his disparaging comments about migrants and his promises to build a border wall paid for by Mexico.
But for many Mexicans, the surprising invitation from Pena Nieto — who has likened Trump’s language to that of Hitler and Mussolini in the past — is even worse.
Newspapers, television stations, social media and all manner of national communication were awash in vitriol at the idea of a meeting between the two men.
The invitation has managed to do what has always been a herculean task in this fractious and economically divided nation: unite the masses.
Protests were lined up for the day. Digital invitations designed like party fliers circulated on social media overnight, heralding the visit with a handwritten message: “Trump, you are not welcome!”
But as others pointed out, Trump is the Republican presidential candidate, and there is a history of Republican nominees visiting Mexican presidents, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., when he was running against Barack Obama.
“At the end of the day, this is the Republican candidate,” said Rafael Fernandez de Castro, a professor at Syracuse University and former foreign policy adviser to Felipe Calderón, the previous Mexican president. “The U.S. electorate put him in this position, and Pena is respecting that.”
Ultimately, he said, foreign policy cannot always be guided by public opinion, no matter the political consequences.
“He has everything to lose in the media, but this is about governing,” Fernandez de Castro said. “He had no other choice — a good relationship with the U.S. is essential for the well-being of Mexico.”
From that perspective, with his approval ratings already low, Pena Nieto may have less to lose than is thought. If the goal was to ensure national interests in the event that Trump wins, then the furor over the visit seemed a political cost the Mexican government is willing to take.
Still, analysts on both sides of the border said they were mystified about why Pena Nieto received Trump.
There is “unanimity that this is a giant farce,” said Jesus Silva-Herzog Marquez, a professor and a columnist for Reforma, a Mexico City newspaper.
Pena Nieto “compared Mr. Trump to Mussolini and Hitler,” he added, “and now we invite Mussolini, we are going to negotiate with Hitler when he hasn’t even won the election.”
After the two men met, in what Trump described as an “excellent” occasion, they appeared at a very civil news conference. Pena Nieto promised to work with whichever candidate was elected and spoke about the importance of the relationship with the United States.
“I shared with him the fact that there have been misunderstandings or affirmations that hurt and affected Mexicans in their perception of his candidacy,” Pena Nieto said he told Trump. “The Mexican people felt aggravated for comments that were formulated, but I am certain that he has a genuine interest in building a relationship that would lead us to provide better conditions to our people”
While Trump hardly offered Mexicans the sort of apology that many had hoped for, he was a far more chastened candidate than Mexicans have come to expect. He repeatedly lauded their hard work, and spoke of his “tremendous feeling” for Mexicans.
“They are amazing people,” he noted.
In the end, he called Pena Nieto a friend.
“I don’t see how that helped Pena Nieto,” said Shannon K. O’Neil, a Mexico expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “If the reason Pena was inviting Trump was to stand up to him and show his strength in front of somebody who has attacked Mexicans, then he failed.
Other critics were less kind.
“To put it mildly, I think it was the biggest humiliation a Mexican president has suffered on his own territory in the last 50 years,” said Esteban Illades, editor of Nexos, a magazine in Mexico. “He not only managed to make Donald Trump look presidential, which is an incredibly hard thing to do, he managed to forgive Donald Trump even though he didn’t actually offer an apology in the first place.”
Mexican officials did not try to clearly articulate the reasons for the visit. The president’s office was relatively mute about the invitation before the meeting, aside from acknowledging that it would occur and dispatching a single post on Twitter explaining the decision.
Some argued that the invite was a distraction from the domestic problems that have gnawed at the Mexican president. Violence is on the rise, new scandals seem to emerge regularly and the impunity that lies at the heart of discord in Mexico remains undisturbed. Most recently, the president was accused of plagiarizing a third of his law school thesis, which his office explained as an error in citation.
Others were not convinced by that explanation, contending that a meeting with Trump hardly makes Mexico’s other problems go away.
“I do not see this as a distraction to his problems; the visit will only add to the problems he faces in Mexico,” said Jason Marczak, a director in the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, a research center. “Donald Trump will come out of this meeting carrying the message of the meeting.”
“He will use Pena Nieto as a political pawn in his campaign,” he added.