Mexico’s president has once again declared that “Mexico will not pay for any wall” but stopped short of cancelling a visit to Washington after Donald Trump signed executive orders that include building the border barrier.
Enrique Peña Nieto reiterated that Mexico would not put a single peso towards the new US president’s signature project. In a televised address he said: “I regret and reject the decision of the US to build the wall.”
But Peña Nieto did not cancel a trip to Washington – a move many in Mexico had demanded after Trump signed an executive order to start plans for fencing off the frontier.
“I have said time and time again, Mexico will not pay for any wall,” Peña Nieto told the nation in his short video statement on Wednesday night.
“Mexico reaffirms its friendship with the people of the United States and its willingness to reach agreements with its government.”
He left up in the air the question of the 31 January meeting with Trump in the White House – saying his decision would depend on an evaluation by a team already in Washington and officials at home.
Mexicans reacted to the president’s statement with confusion. Many in the political class had called on Peña Nieto to cancel his meeting after Trump signed the executive order.
A senior government official told the Associated Press that the Mexican president was “considering” calling off the visit to Washington, but no decision had been taken.
On Thursday, Trump appeared to be goading his Mexican counterpart into pulling out of the visit, saying on Twitter: “If Mexico is unwilling to pay for the badly needed wall, then it would be better to cancel the upcoming meeting.”
Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, a leftist former presidential candidate, told an audience in Mexico City: “If a [Mexican] presidential visit is being announced, he will be received there by having the door slammed in his face.
“I think the least we can do in these conditions would be not to show up, cancel the visit to the United States and find a dignified position for Mexico.”
Peña Nieto has encountered sustained criticism for failing to come up with a decisive strategy to deal with Trump’s combative policies.
Trump repeatedly promised a border wall throughout his election campaign but Mexico’s political elite appeared to be hoping that the billionaire-turned-populist politician had been bluffing.
That hope proved misplaced on Wednesday, when the US president signed the order, proclaiming: “A nation without borders is not a nation.”
Trump claimed that “we’re in the middle of a crisis on our southern border”, citing an “unprecedented surge” of illegal immigrants from Central America that was harming both the US and Mexico.
The likely effectiveness of the planned wall is fiercely disputed. More Mexican immigrants have returned to Mexico from the US than have migrated to the US since the end of the 2007-08 financial crisis, according to the Pew Research Center. Research shows that immigrants are more law-abiding than non-immigrants.
Peña Nieto has consistently rejected Trump’s suggestion that Mexico will pay for the border wall and promised to put Mexico first in any negotiations.
But analysts say the president has few strong options in confronting an American administration considered the most hostile to Mexico since the Mexican-American war of the 1840s – in which Mexico was forced to cede its northern territory.
Peña Nieto – whose personal popularity ratings currently languish at 12% (the lowest in history) – appears to be caught in an impossible situation: paying for the wall would stoke domestic outrage. Not paying could provoke problems with Trump’s team, however.
“The whole thing is lose-lose. The only question is how much,” said Esteban Illades, editor of the Mexican magazine Nexos.
Trump’s executive order to build a wall along the nearly 2,000-mile US-Mexico border came on the same day Mexico’s foreign minister Luis Videgary and economy minister Ildefonso Guajardo met with senior Trump administration officials.
“I would cancel the meeting [with Trump] or postpone it as a message that we’re not going to do what they want, that we’re not going to play their game,” Agustín Basave, ex-leader of the left-leaning Democratic Revolution party, told the newspaper Reforma. “I would start by saying things like we are going to review Mexico’s cooperation in the areas of security and migration.”
Others were even more direct, including ex-president Vicente Fox – who has walloped Trump with profanity-laden tweets for more than a year.
Mexican officials have expressed hopes of salvaging Nafta, which facilitates more than 0bn annually in cross-border trade, though Guajardo told Mexican TV earlier this week that Mexico would consider walking away from the deal.
Canadian officials have also mused about abandoning Mexico to forge a bilateral deal with the US if necessary, leaving Mexico’s increasingly export-oriented economy in a bind.
“If we’re going for something that is less than what we have now, it doesn’t make sense to stay in,” Guajardo told the Televisa network.
Until recently, such a posture would have been unthinkable as Mexico shifted its economy from one so closed that smuggled candy was sold in itinerant markets to one so open it has more than 40 free-trade deals with countries around the world.
But moving away from the massive US market has proved difficult for Mexico, which sends 80% of its exports north. Peña Nieto told the nation Monday that Mexico would seek stronger ties with countries in the hemisphere, but promptly cancelled his participation in a summit of Latin American and Caribbean countries.
“The cancelation was given in such short notice that it raises suspicions that Peña Nieto would not want to meet with other leaders who would want a strongly worded statement against Trump,” Illades said.
Peña Nieto has promised to impose conditions on any negotiation with the US, including addressing issues such as smuggled guns streaming across the border, arming drug cartels, and Mexico’s efforts to detain and deport migrants who transit its territory in attempts to reach the US.
But the president is playing a weak hand, while his approval rating of just 12% is hampering his attempts at fomenting unity in a time of crisis.
“There is unity; people do not like Trump,” says Rodolfo Soriano-Núñez, a sociologist in Mexico City, “but there is this sense that Trump is not the real problem, rather trust in a presidency ridden with scandals.”
Additional reporting by David Smith
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