What do we really know about Enrique Pena Nieto, the suave, well-coiffed front-runner in Mexico’s presidential race?
The answer is not enough — and it is vital that we remedy this before the July 1 election. Between now and then Mexicans must corner Pena Nieto, who represents the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, and question him. Journalists must examine his finances and scrutinize his political and corporate allegiances. We need to know if he is a forward-thinking candidate, with real plans to tackle Mexico’s many problems, or if he will simply toe the PRI’s longstanding party line. If Pena Nieto is going to be the next president of Mexico — and, according to most national polls, he is in the lead by a wide margin — then we have to know who he really is before he takes office. And time is running out.
Mexicans generally don’t put a lot of faith in political polls: Remembering all too well the rampant fraud and trickery during the PRI’s time in power — most of the 20th century — many people tend to assume that polling data has been bought or otherwise manipulated. But, regardless of whether the polls that put Pena Nieto ahead are accurate, Mexico’s two other viable candidates, Josefina Vazquez Mota of the National Action Party and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the Party of the Democratic Revolution, clearly see Pena Nieto as the man to beat. Both have recently attacked the policies Pena Nieto enacted as governor of the state of Mexico and have vigorously questioned his cozy relationships with PRI politicos and the media.
But they’re not the only ones. On May 19, thousands of demonstrators in Mexico City protested against Pena Nieto and the possibility that the autocratic PRI could return to power only 12 years after its seven-decade rule ended. Even the late Mexican author Carlos Fuentes, a strident critic of the PRI, lambasted Pena Nieto just months before his death. In an interview with the BBC, Fuentes commented on the flubbed answer Pena Nieto gave when asked at a public appearance to name three books that have influenced him. In his response, the candidate misattributed one of Fuentes’ books to another author. “This is very serious,” Fuentes told the BBC. “Not that he hasn’t read one of my books, no; it’s that he’s proving his ignorance. He’s a very ignorant man, and (solving) problems requires a man who knows a couple of things.”
Thus far, however, Pena Nieto has been the Teflon candidate: None of the criticism seems to stick.
Despite being a young candidate, the 45-year-old Pena Nieto has delivered speeches and asserted positions that paint a portrait of a politician stuck in the past — one who is a bit too polished, too entrenched in the old authoritarian style of the PRI. This is worrisome because before the party was unseated in 2000, PRI was synonymous with corruption in Mexico. Pena Nieto’s past political relationships are troubling, too. His response to accusations of corruption on the part of his former mentor and political ally Arturo Montiel, the former governor of the state of Mexico, have been lukewarm at best.
(Montiel was never officially charged.) Further, Pena Nieto is linked to anti-democratic PRI leaders including former Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who was chosen by his predecessor and who eventually chose his own successor. If Pena Nieto really wants to be perceived as a modern candidate, he must break with these political dinosaurs. So far, he has refused to do so.
I have also been thinking about what Pena Nieto told me when I interviewed him in 2009. We discussed the civil unrest in the Mexican town of San Salvador Atenco in 2006: When he was governor, two men were killed and 26 women were reportedly sexually abused during a two-day confrontation with hundreds of police officers.
“When the talk is about rapes, abuses, I would tell you that they are suppositions and charges made by some women, but which were not duly proved in any of the cases,” he told me, siding with the accused rather than the victims. (The interview can be seen at bit.ly/tLbMTx).
During our interview, he also insisted that “Mexico is a safe country — more than other countries in Latin America.” Of course, the millions of Mexicans who live in fear of drug cartels might beg to differ. A staggering 50,000 people have been killed by drug-related violence in the past six years, and Mexico’s next president must make it a priority to end this mayhem that has so bloodied the country. Does Pena Nieto understand that? Does he still think Mexico is safe, even as news outlets continue to report on the 49 mutilated bodies that were discovered this month in Nuevo Laredo?
We must find out who Pena Nieto truly is and what he believes. After all, we would do the same with Lopez Obrador or Vazquez Mota if one of them were in the lead.
Let’s not wait until it’s too late.
By Jorge Ramos Avalos
(May 21, 2012)