The Subjective Bias Towards Mexico’s President: Peña Nieto’s Reputation Domestic and Abroad

Author: Keely Herring, Johns Hopkins University


In late September of this year, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto won the Global Citizen Award from a think-tank called the Atlantic Council. In late October, he has become the target of a twitter campaign demanding his resignation. Why the discrepancy in opinion?

Rather than delving into an analysis of the inherent political factions that emerge, given socioeconomic differences or varying stances, there is first a crucial distinction that must be made in regards to the origin of each of these opinions and corresponding actions. The think-tank that honored Peña Nieto is based in the United States, and the twitter campaign has been a movement led by Mexican citizens. The Mexican President has initiated a massive wave of reforms within the country, and this has inevitably resulted in an outburst of reactions, both domestically and abroad. Abroad, he has been receiving immense praise and support by government and media publications. Meanwhile, citizens in his own country have increasingly been expressing discontent.

Since the day he was elected on July 1, 2012, Peña Nieto has had his sights set on reforms in “energy, education, and telecommunications,” according to an interview with the Washington Post this September. Thus far in office, he has passed education reform, making the system more merit-based, as well as mandating regular teacher evaluations. He has opened up the energy industry to private and foreign investors, though Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex), the state-owned company that holds a monopoly on the oil industry presently, will be able to maintain some of its original holdings. Although he mostly worked on labor reform prior to becoming President, Peña Nieto has continued this reform, which has opened up the labor pool to hire more young people and women. Additionally, he has put tax reforms into place. Ultimately these reforms have been aimed towards continuing the trend of economic openness in Mexico, and in Peña Nieto’s own words, to “fight monopolistic practices” and “advocate for competition” in the Mexican economy.

Following these reforms, specifically those dealing with taxes and privatization of various industries such as oil and electricity, Peña Nieto has declined in popularity within Mexico. Back in August of this year, 60% of Mexicans disapproved of the president’s overall performance in dealing with the economy. 67% of Mexicans were “dissatisfied” with current conditions in the nation. When he initiated these reforms, Peña Nieto was well aware of the unpopularity that would likely arise. In an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations at the end of September, he stated “a tax reform is not the most popular one,” but backed up his decision as necessary for crucial long-term economic development. Peña Nieto has been consistent about pursuing his goal of more and sustainable economic growth within Mexico; he has continually told the Mexican public that tangible changes from the aforementioned economic reforms are on their way, but Mexican citizens are getting inpatient.

Though improving the economy is far from a unworthy cause, many Mexicans have expressed frustration at the lack of attention Peña Nieto’s administration has been directing towards what many Mexicans deem the most dire issue: security. In the wake of the disappearance of 43 students from a teaching college in the city of Iguala in southern Mexico, and the corruption, violence, and insecurity within the country that it reveals, Peña Nieto’s domestic unpopularity has soared. Especially given that the Mayor of Iguala was found to be complicit, with the drug cartels, in the mass disappearances. This tragedy is only one example of police corruption in Mexico, and the perpetual cycle of violence and mass killings against groups of protesting citizens. The Twitter movement “#DemandoTuRenunciaEPN” (“I demand your resignation Enrique Peña Nieto”) has been prompted by the recent revelation of persisting gang and police violence, according to AlJazeera. Mexican citizens feel that more has been said than done on the part of the president and his administration in terms of improving security. Lapses in security are felt more acutely and immediately by the Mexican public than the promised, but ever so gradual, effects of economic reform.

Abroad, on the other hand, Peña Nieto has been receiving much different feedback. In addition to receiving the Atlantic Council award, in the past year he graced the cover of TIME magazine, along with the caption “Saving Mexico.” In February, Foreign Affairs magazine hailed the president’s reforms as wholeheartedly positive because they focused on opening the economy further and tackling inequality in wealth distribution and taxation. The Atlantic Council explained their reason for honoring Peña Nieto, stating his reforms have “recast Mexico’s image as a global innovator.” Abroad, particularly in the United States, he is viewed as a leader who has made unpopular changes that are necessary for long-term growth within Mexico.

The disparate view of a leader domestically and abroad is a common theme. However, it usually arises in the opposite scenario than it has with Peña Nieto. Historically, leaders tend to be popular internally, but unpopular internationally. One prime example is Cuba. Following the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro and his implementations have been looked down upon for human rights violations, widespread censorship, and suppression of any and all political dissension. However, Castro was still immensely popular among Cubans because the of education and healthcare benefits he instituted, as well as because of a collective anti-American sentiment; national pride was formed as a result of the sense of pride and unity at the successful resistance of United States intrusion.

Another more current example is Putin’s domestic popularity post-annexation of Crimea in Ukraine. According to the Washington Post, his popularity within Russia is unbelievably high; as of August 2014 he had an approval rating of 84%. Prior to the annexation of Crimea, in October of 2013, his approval rating was 64%. Meanwhile, in the international community, Putin, in light of his treatment of the situation in Ukraine in particular, is considered to be delusional, as well as a threat to human rights and democratic values in today’s world.

The cases of domestic popularity and international unpopularity in Cuba and Russia compared the present reverse situation in Mexico illustrate an interesting trend. In both Cuba and Russia, Castro and Putin’s popularity were the result of actions which demonstrated the nation’s solidarity and/or strength against an opposing nation; for Cuba it was holding their ground against a dominant world power, the US, while in Russia, the aim was invasion and annexation of a foreign territory.

Peña Nieto has not violated any human rights, in the sense that no censorship in media or suppression of personal freedoms have been instituted under his rule. Nor has he inflicted deliberate harm against any of the Mexican citizens, or other neighboring countries for that matter. Yet, support for Peña Nieto does not match the support that was once felt for Cuba’s dictator, and that is currently surging for Russia’s Kremlin. He has made sweeping reforms, and though the results have yet to be felt by the majority of Mexican citizens, the United States and other nations have recognized that these actions demonstrate movement in the right direction.

Though the economic growth, and corresponding reforms initiated by Peña Nieto have been praised by the international community, and is a very promising prospect to the Mexican population, the lack of security and rampant violence is the most tangible and pressing issue in the day-to-day lives of the Mexican population. The insecurity felt by the population within Mexico is not experienced as intensely by those living outside its borders. The international community praises Peña Nieto because they can see from afar the potential of his reforms for Mexico’s economic future. Meanwhile, Mexican citizens’ main concern is to feel secure in their communities, and eradicate the corruption and violence that is impeding on the sense of security in their day-to-day lives. The contrasting opinion of Peña Nieto demonstrates that popularity is subjective. Perceptions are all about perspective; the popularity of a leader and his administration is evaluated differently when it is separated into domestic and international levels.


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