Pena Nieto Leaves Office As First Mexican Leader in Decades Not to Get a US State Visit

Outgoing President of Mexico Enrique Pena Nieto during the official ceremony and swearing of the new president of Mexico Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador at Mexico's Congress on December 01, 2018 in Mexico City, Mexico (Photo by Carlos Tischler/Sipa USA)

December 9, 2018

By Franco Ordonez

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Standing in front of both nations’ flags, Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto stood shoulder-to-shoulder with President Donald Trump, smiling for the cameras and shaking hands before sitting down to sign a new North American trade agreement.

But the visit wasn’t in the East Room of the White House. Pena Nieto didn’t get Trump to himself. (Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was there.) And it wasn’t an official state visit.

In fact, Pena Nieto is the first Mexican president in more than half a century not to be honored with a state visit to the United States — reflecting how far relations have fallen between the United States and America’s most important bilateral partner.

Some diplomats feel the slight — by both Presidents Barack Obama and Trump — could cause lasting damage to the U.S.-Mexico relationship.

Jorge Guajardo, a former Mexican ambassador to China, said the longtime tradition showed that both sides recognized the importance of the partnership between neighbors, and regardless of the political challenges, they could put those differences aside when necessary.

“It’s the equivalent of having a block party,” Guajardo said. “You might have some difficult times. But you know you’re going to continue to see each other and need to maintain good contact. And when you stop that, there can be a rupture in the relationship.”

Mexico is the United States’ third-largest trading partner with $557.6 billion in goods traded between the two nations last year. The relationship is also critical on security and migration issues.

“No other country has as many connections to the United States as Mexico and so much at stake,” said Michael Shifter, who as president of the Inter-American Dialogue has deep ties with many leaders. “If the relationship goes off course, it has significant consequences.”

But Pena Nieto did not receive one of the grandest and most glamorous honors afforded by the White House. He did not receive a special arrival ceremony on the South Lawn. He did not get to stay at the Blair House. He did not receive a state dinner. And, unlike some of the Mexican presidents before him, he did not get to address a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress.

The State Department records indicate Pena Nieto received a state visit on July 22, 2016, but Obama administration officials and the Mexican government say the information is wrong. That visit was strictly a bilateral meeting and a news conference.

At the 2001 state visit by President Vicente Fox, President George W. Bush famously referred to Mexico as “our most important relationship.” Less than 15 years later, Trump launched his presidential campaign attacking Mexico and accusing its leaders of sending “criminals and rapists” across the border.

In August 2016, Pena Nieto invited candidate Trump to Mexico City for a meeting at the presidential palace looking to smooth relations. But Trump again pledged to build a border wall between the two nations and Trump, even as president, never appeared to stop using Mexico in some of his most aggressive rhetoric.

Trump was supposed to visit Mexico after his election, but Pena Nieto canceled the visit over Trump’s insistence on the wall and having Mexico pay for it.

“It would have been impossible for Trump to offer or Pena Nieto to accept a state dinner, given the tensions in the relationship and the feelings that key blocs of political supporters had in each country,” said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute, who is in frequent contact with Mexican officials.

Obama didn’t host Pena Nieto either for a state visit during the few years their terms overlapped.

Pena Nieto came under a cloud of suspicion, dealing with allegations of corruption, violence and human rights violations. And Obama also had hosted a state visit with Pena Nieto’s predecessor, Felipe Calderon.

“It’s not like he dissed Mexico,” said Mark Feierstein, the White House National Security Council’s senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs under Obama. “Mexico did get their state visit and there are very few state visits to go around.”

Feierstein notes that Obama also met with Pena Nieto multiple times in Washington, Mexico and other parts of the world, while they were both in office.

Some of the blame for the tense relationship between the countries could be placed on Pena Nieto, who angered Mexicans by inviting candidate Trump to visit and then granting his senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, the nations’ highest honor for foreigners, the Order of the Aztec Eagle, for his assistance renegotiating NAFTA.

“Many Mexicans saw it as another way of bending to the Trump administration,” Antonio Ocaranza, spokesman for the administration of former president Ernesto Zedillo.

Ocaranza, who said he didn’t completely agree with public’s criticism of Kushner, said Pena Nieto should have visited the United States on his own. He could have done a better job mobilizing Mexican allies in the business, trade and advocacy communities of the United States to help counter the negative narrative promoted by Trump.

“We left that narrative to pervade and to generate an atmosphere where Mexicans in the United States felt persecuted and, obviously had to defend themselves against the narrative of ‘criminals and rapist,’” Ocaranza said. “That was in the atmosphere.”

Andres Rozental, a former deputy foreign minister of Mexico, said he is hopeful that under new leadership, Mexico will be able to address some of the differences between the two nations. He notes that both Trump and new President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador have indicated a willingness to work together. But he’s skeptical it’ll work out considering their political differences.

“There are too many issues on the table between the two countries,” Rozental said. “And some of these I think will be exacerbated by the ideological differences, if you like, between a far right populist in the United states and a far left populist in Mexico.”

———

©2018 McClatchy Washington Bureau

Visit the McClatchy Washington Bureau at www.mcclatchydc.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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