Pena Nieto’s reputation has been dented by abuses by security forces, conflict-of-interest scandals and political corruption. It took a fresh hit this summer when he hosted U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in Mexico City on Aug. 31 for a hastily arranged visit that surprised many members of his cabinet.
Trump has long pilloried Mexico, pledging to isolate the country behind a massive border wall and saying the United States’ southern neighbor has been sending rapists and drug smugglers north.
Speaking at an event in Mexico City organized by newspaper El Financiero and Bloomberg, Pena Nieto urged an audience of business folk and politicians to take an optimistic view of Mexico, even if that did not mean talking up the government.
“In this job, my only intention is for Mexico to do well, and I’m sure that’s all the previous presidents have set out to do, eh?,” said Pena Nieto, who has just over two years of his six-year term left to run.
“I don’t think presidents get up, nor have they got up thinking, and forgive me for saying it, how to screw Mexico,” using the word “joder”, a vulgar term with a variety of colloquial uses across the Spanish-speaking world.
Surveys show years of corruption scandals and patchy justice have made Mexicans highly skeptical of their politicians, and Pena Nieto’s approval rating slumped to a low of 23 percent in an opinion poll published in August, before the Trump visit.
Trump has vowed to make Mexico pay for his border wall, threatened to tear up Mexico’s trade deal with the United States and to deport millions of illegal migrants.
Both opponents and supporters of Pena Nieto said the government had played into Trump’s hands with the visit, but the president defended his decision on the grounds that he had to seek dialogue with Trump to protect Mexico’s interests.
However, Pena Nieto conceded at the event that the invitation could have been handled differently.
(Reporting by Dave Graham and Adriana Barrera; Editing by David Gregorio)