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Mexicans wonder why their president thought a trip to see Trump was a good idea

Mexico's President Enrique Peña Nieto holds a Mexican flag during Flag Day celebrations at Campo Marte in Mexico City.
Mexico's President Enrique Peña Nieto holds a Mexican flag during Flag Day celebrations at Campo Marte in Mexico City. (Edgard Garrido/Reuters)

MEXICO CITY — What has surprised Mexicans is not that President Trump “lost his temper” in a telephone conversation with his Mexican counterpart, prompting President Enrique Peña Nieto to cancel a trip to Washington, but that Peña Nieto was even thinking about going in the first place.

Why, asked foreign affairs analysts and many Mexicans taking to social media Sunday, would the country’s unpopular president contemplate another tête-à-tête with Trump after two embarrassing encounters — that served to strengthen Trump politically at the expense of Peña Nieto?

No one faulted him for canceling this trip to Washington, which he did Saturday. But many Mexicans questioned what purpose the meeting could have served and wondered if the president and foreign minister, Luis Videgaray, had learned from the humiliations of Peña Nieto’s previous interactions with Trump. In those conversations, the U.S. president brought up his “big, beautiful” border wall and the prospect of Mexico paying for it — which the Mexican government says will never happen.

“There hasn’t been a single meeting [with Trump] in which Peña Nieto has obtained some sort of benefit, whether personal or for the country,” said Brenda Estefan, a foreign affairs analyst and former security attache in the Mexican Embassy in Washington. “It’s absurd to continue asking for a reunion so they can be trampled.”

Others wondered whether the administration still harbored the belief that it could convince Trump of the value of the Mexican relationship and sticking with the North American Free Trade Agreement amid tricky renegotiations.

“How bad could things be, when the best news from yesterday was the cancellation of the EPN/Trump meeting following a heated phone call,” tweeted Gabriel Guerra Castellanos, a former Mexican consul in Toronto. “The incredible part is [the call] saved us from [Trump’s] tantrum and not the foresight of our diplomats.”

The discourteous telephone called served to underscore the difficulties of Peña Nieto’s dealings with Trump, even though Videgaray had described the U.S.-Mexico relationship as being “closer under Trump than in previous administrations.”

The news broke at a tough time for Peña Nieto, though it distracted from a Saturday mishap at Flag Day celebrations, in which soldiers at the official ceremony raised a massive Mexican flag upside down — something seen as oddly apt by many on social media as the country suffers corruption scandals, crises of confidence in public officials and violence rising to record levels.

The ill-tempered Trump call also came as the country gears up for the July 1 presidential election. Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has sunk in the polls, while the sedate speaking style of its candidate, former finance minister José Antonio Meade — picked in part for his clean track record — fails to excite voters or move the polls upward. Some observers speculated that the proposed trip to Washington was as much about raising attention at home as it was to accomplish anything to do with NAFTA or Mexico-U.S. relations.

“Peña Nieto and Videgaray wanted to show ‘leadership’ at a time when they believed that Mexico was doing well in the renegotiation of NAFTA — at least better than Canada — and their candidate is suffering,” said Carlos Heredia, professor at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics.

The trip, however, “didn’t make sense,” he added. “What are they thinking? Any Mexican can tell you that there isn’t any point.

”What are you going to get out of it? Nothing — another humiliation,” Heredia said.

Polls show Meade running a distant third — the newspaper Reforma put his support at just 14 percent — trailing Ricardo Anaya, of the unwieldy left-right coalition, and left-wing populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

Surveys also show Mexicans deeply disliking Trump, but election rhetoric has focused on domestic matters rather than promises to confront Trump or defend Mexican dignity.

Trump is “not a factor because it’s not something you can influence at all,” Heredia said. “And because we do not have a constituency inside the United States that could make Trump pay for insulting Mexicans.”

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