If President Enrique Peña Nieto envisioned his visit to Washington to meet President Barack Obama as sparking favorable coverage abroad and revitalizing his tarnished international image, the reality fell badly short.
Protestors gathered in the snow outside the White House to denounce the president, with one banner proclaiming “Peña – killer” in red letters. ABC even reported that the small demonstrations held in Washington D.C. and at least 20 other U.S. cities overshadowed the day, embarrassing the Mexican leader.
In fact, domestic concerns over a failed rebellion in Congress, and Obama’s veto threat to the House were what really upstaged the visit. Last month’s seismic announcement that the White House would restore diplomatic ties with Cuba can’t have helped either, as mainstream U.S. media seems to have temporarily maxed out its interest in Latin American affairs.
For Peña Nieto, the discussion of trade and energy were key. Here was a chance to promote his big plan A: the implementation of reforms to put Mexico on a path to economic growth.
Yet Cuba and immigration topped Tuesday’s agenda. Obama urged Mexico to halt the flow of immigrants, and Peña Nieto praised the “very audacious decision” to normalize ties with Havana.
There were no big announcements and none of the major U.S. TV channels covered the visit. Newspapers running the story all referred to the problems Peña Nieto was facing at home.
After weeks of speculation in Mexico, Obama did mention the case of the disappeared students of Aytozinapa. “Obviously we’ve been following here in the United States some of the tragic events surrounding the students whose lives were lost,” he told reporters after the meeting. “Our commitment is to be a friend and partner with Mexico in its efforts to eliminate the scourge of violence and drug cartels.”
Yet there was no condemnation of Peña Nieto’s handling of the crisis and many advocates had been hoping for more.
“Mexico is facing its worst human rights crisis in years, with security forces committing horrific abuses that are rarely punished,” said Daniel Wilkinson, managing director of the Americas division at Human Rights Watch. “The Peña Nieto administration has so far failed to take this crisis seriously, and President Obama has been unwilling to call them on it.”
Before the Ayotzinapa case put insecurity back in the news, Peña Nieto was having considerable success promoting his plan A of economic growth. Mexico was sold as a country in reform, reaching for transparency and ripe for investment. His decision to take on the telecommunications monopoly and open up the energy sector had earned him praise abroad, culminating in a Time Magazine cover showing him under the headline, “Saving Mexico.”
Then came the scandals and his fortunes nosedived. The mass kidnapping of 43 students from Ayotzinapa Teachers College sparked a wave of protest. The authorities displayed terrible judgment, cracking down on dissent in a way that recalled Mexico’s undemocratic past. The President made matters worse. He described the unrest as a plot to “destabilize” the country and neglected to meet the parents of the missing students until over a month after their disappearance.
The official narrative that Peña Nieto was heading a revitalized and transparent Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) became harder to sell. The PRI had been out of power since 2000, when their 71-year rule came to an end. They were re-elected in 2012 on the promise that they would restore order, while steering clear of repression and corruption.
Yet backed into a corner, the party reverted to its old tactics. Peña Nieto repeatedly condemned the protest movement, police beat demonstrators and the 20 November march in Mexico City led to the temporary jailing of 11 people in maximum security prisons.
Yet while the PRI hasn’t moved on, Mexico has. As journalist Katherine Corcoran’s points out Peña Nieto “is facing a Mexico much changed in the years since the PRI left office, when the country was still largely isolated, had very little investigative media and no citizen watchdogs armed with cellphone cameras and social media.”
The revelation that a government contractor had provided the president and his wife with a $7 million mansion has furthered the sense that this is the same old PRI. Peña Nieto’s approval rating has plummeted, reaching 39 percent by December according to Grupo Reforma. To put that into perspective, even his predecessor, Felipe Calderon, whose presidency was marred by rising violence, had a rating of 66 percent in 2012.
If the president has any chance of reversing this trend he badly needs his neoliberal reforms to bolster the economy. Trips abroad to exchange pleasantries with world leaders simply won’t cut it. So far, his plan A has devalued the peso, driven gas prices up and stagnated job growth.
Peña Nieto acknowledged the economy was paramount in his first public appearance of the year in Oaxaca.
“This year of 2015 we will feel the first effects of the reforms that we have enacted in the first two years of this administration,” he said. “It will be the families themselves, the Mexican people, who will be the judges of our actions. They are the ones who can measure and evaluate the benefits the reforms yield.”
Unfortunately for Peña Nieto, neoliberalism in Mexico has never seemed to work. From the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 to the present, deregulation and privatization have promoted inequality, with a knock-on effect on crime that has contributed to the kind of violence currently miring his reputation.
Many economists, both in Mexico and abroad, view the reforms as necessary and long overdue. Yet if neoliberalism fails once again, Peña Nieto’s government may be badly wishing it had a plan B.