As Trump visits their unpopular president, Mexicans wonder 'Why?'

Republican US presidential candidate Donald Trump may be the only person less popular in Mexico than President Enrique Peña Nieto, which has left many here questioning why he was invited. But experts say there's good reason.

Rebecca Blackwell/AP
Diego Garcia wears a Mexican wrestling mask and holds a sign reading in Spanish, 'Stop the offenses of Trump and EPN,' referring to Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, as he protests Donald Trump's meeting with the president, in Mexico City on Wednesday.

Mexico’s least popular president in nearly two decades met with one of Mexicans’ least-loved US presidential candidates today, a last-minute gathering that took many by surprise.

The official meeting between President Enrique Peña Nieto and US presidential hopeful Donald Trump, announced overnight, follows months of insults hurled by Mr. Trump toward Mexico and Mexicans.

President Peña Nieto, who earlier this year likened Trump’s rhetoric to that of Adolf Hitler, extended an invitation last Friday to both Republican and Democratic US presidential candidates.

Although there are plenty of reasons why a sitting president would want to set the scene for cordial relations with the potential next president of the United States, many here don’t approve.

"Trump's a [jackass]," says Arnoldo Martinez – using a more insulting term to describe the Republican candidate – as he swept the sidewalk outside a cafe in Mexico City. "But Peña Nieto is an even bigger one for bringing him down here."

Another city resident, Noe, working at his wife's clothing stall at a market in the city, said he's "surprised [Trump] wants to risk his life among all the rapists and drug traffickers by coming to Mexico,” a reference to some of Trump’s comments about the country's people.

The right move for Peña Nieto?

The timing of the visit, which The Washington Post reports was quickly arranged by Trump’s camp following last week’s invitation, may not be ideal for Peña Nieto.

He’s scheduled to deliver his fourth national address, akin to the State of the Union, tomorrow. Already he’s facing record low public support, with roughly 23 percent approval. He’s embroiled in yet another personal scandal, accused of plagiarizing his law school dissertation, and is trying to put out fires related to larger corruption allegations involving federal police involvement in extrajudicial killings and ongoing teacher protests.

Inviting Trump, who received 2 percent approval in a June poll by daily El Financiero asking who Mexicans would prefer as the next US president, may only pull him down further in the public eye.

“Maybe it’s not the best timing, but it’s something [Peña Nieto] couldn’t reject,” says Alejandro Schtulmann, head of research for Emerging Markets Political Risk Analysis, a consultancy in Mexico City. “The Mexican government has been saying all along that it will work with whoever gets elected in the US, regardless of policy issues."

And he adds that the short-term public anger that Peña Nieto might be subject to is dwarfed by the need to retain positive relations with the US. "A lot of people are upset and asking ‘how can he do this,’ but politically it’s the right thing to do,” Mr. Schtulmann says. “You never know what will happen in the end, so it’s better to leave an open door rather than close the possibility of negotiations….

And the very fact that the meeting is happening in Mexico changes everything,” he adds, calling it a “sign of humility from Trump.”

'Maybe he’ll leave with a different view'

Social media users don’t appear to see the same silver lining. Facebook and Twitter are overflowing with tongue-in-cheek memes related to Trump’s visit Wednesday, many using the hashtag #SrTrumpConTodoRespeto, or “Mr. Trump, with all due respect.” Some, including former President Vicente Fox, who has tangled with Trump over social media in the past, are voicing the need for Trump to apologize to Mexicans during his visit. (Trump said in a news conference afterward that his visit to Mexico City was a "great honor.")

"Trump is using Mexico, is using President Peña to push his sinking poll numbers," Mr. Fox told CNN today.

Anti-Trump protesters gathered at the iconic Angel of Independence plaza today, holding signs that read "Go Home Trump - and take Peña with you" and "You're just another brick in the wall." The politicians held a brief press conference following their closed-door meeting.

“Whenever something big like this happens in our country, it’s usually meant to distract [the public] from something bigger happening at home,” says college student and bakery employee Yackelina, who only found out about Trump’s visit today after this reporter inquired.

“I don’t understand why he was invited or why he is coming, but I hope at the very least that something good comes out of it,” she says, sipping a yogurt drink. “If he becomes president and tries to follow through on all of the crazy things he’s said, it’s better to start talking now. Maybe he’ll leave with a different view of Mexico.” 

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