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Despite not taking office until December, as well as legal challenges over July’s election result, Mr. Pena Nieto has has already named a transition team, as well as a commission to investigate corruption complaints against officials. (Adriana Zehbrauskas)
Despite not taking office until December, as well as legal challenges over July’s election result, Mr. Pena Nieto has has already named a transition team, as well as a commission to investigate corruption complaints against officials. (Adriana Zehbrauskas)

Mexico’s new president opens up about old ways, vision for future Add to ...

When it comes to the direction of Mexico’s new president, the most telling detail may be the absence of cufflinks.

In one of his first interviews since winning the July 1 election, Enrique Pena Nieto looks relaxed, ordering – and taking the time to sip – a coffee, in a room set up to resemble a television set in an upscale hotel an hour from the city’s centre. He is dressed tidily, but not extravagantly, in a dark suit and a red-and-grey striped tie reminiscent of a school boy’s. Yet he is missing a key sartorial detail that defines the country’s elite: the cufflinks.

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Unlike past presidents, Mr. Pena Nieto comes from a middle-class family and does not boast impeccable English or an Ivy League degree, such as outgoing President Felipe Calderon. Instead, he received his law degree from the Panamerican University, a private Opus Dei institution in Mexico City, and has a certain humility about him, referring to himself in speeches as “your servant.”

Even if this unpretentious style is just a marketing ploy to play down his legendary good looks, Mr. Pena Nieto, 45, does come across as being more a man of the people than past leaders, chatting amiably with his young U.S.-educated aides.

His seductive charisma – he is married to a real-life soap opera star, Angelica Rivera – and his tightly disciplined campaign help explain his success in turning around the fortunes of the sclerotic Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), known for its corruption and cronyism. No one could have predicted that the PRI, which ruled for 71 years before its historic 2000 defeat, would return to office just 12 years later.

“We live in a democracy that didn’t exist before,” he said. “I will respect the plurality of the country.”

Mr. Pena Nieto also defended his party’s electoral triumph, which is being challenged by the opposition on the grounds of vote buying, media manipulation and campaign overspending. “It is unthinkable in Mexico that the vote was forced or bought,” he said. “My adversaries are not the best to judge this.”

Once he takes office in December, his priorities will be to boost Mexico’s economic growth, liberalize the energy sector, reform the tax code, re-think the drug war and restore the country’s profile on the global stage, including fostering greater links with Canada, a country he admittedly does not know a lot about.

Officially, Mr. Pena Nieto is still just the “winning candidate” – although he won by a seven-point margin, with 38 per cent of the vote. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) received 31 per cent of the vote, and Josefina Vazquez Mota of the National Action Party (PAN) got 25 per cent.

But before declaring an official winner, the country’s federal electoral court must investigate the PRD’s legal challenges that the PRI engaged in fraudulent tactics. Mr. Lopez Obrador also refused to accept the results of the 2006 election, when he lost by a much narrower margin to the PAN.

The PRI has also been dogged by accusations that it “bought” the overly positive media coverage accorded Mr. Pena Nieto by Televisa, Latin America’s largest media conglomerate. The Guardian newspaper reported that the PRI paid Televisa – allegations both Televisa and the PRI deny. A youth protest movement, Yo Soy 132, also caught the PRI by surprise, as demonstrators filled the streets, angry about the biased media coverage and Mr. Pena Nieto’s Teflon image.

Giving gifts and grocery cards to voters is not illegal under Mexican electoral law, as long as the expense is reported. Even influencing voters in this manner is not viewed as grounds for overturning an election.

However, Mr. Pena Nieto will clearly need to work hard to convince disenchanted Mexicans that he really is a reformer and that the PRI has changed its ways.

“I have always said that my party is today more remembered for its misdeeds and wrongdoings than for its accomplishments and contributions,” he notes. “Nonetheless, the party had become worn out. … My party has to transform itself.”

The other albatross around Mr. Pena Nieto’s neck is the country’s drug war. Mexicans are frustrated with the spiral of violence unleashed by his predecessor’s military-led offensive against the cartels. Since Mr. Calderon took office in 2006, more than 55,000 people have been killed, as rival criminal groups battle each other and state authorities for control of key drug-trafficking corridors. Grisly displays of narco-barbarity – including the dumping of headless corpses – have left ordinary citizens numbed.

The moment has come, Mr. Pena Nieto says, to analyze whether the military strategy has led to a reduction in the production and consumption of drugs. “The approach has not worked,” he says. “Now is an opportunity to re-define what actions we should take in the drug war, what each country should do and how the operation should be carried out.”

While he has vowed to continue the military offensive and is not in favour of decriminalizing drugs, he also wants to focus on crime reduction and not just on taking down capos. Judicial reforms and police training began under the PAN but have faltered due to lack of funds and Mr. Pena Nieto aims to re-energize these efforts.

When asked what role Canada could play, he stressed that Ottawa could help train Mexico’s police and share its judicial expertise, as well as policies that have been successful in treating addicts.

There is a pause, however, when Mr. Pena Nieto tries to answer a question about what the two countries have in common. Canada is Mexico’s number three trading partner, with $27-billion a year in two-way trade. Finally, he mentions the agricultural workers program, a seasonal initiative that permits temporary farmhands to come to Canada.

There is good will toward Canada, if not deep knowledge, and Mr. Pena Nieto says he wants to forge greater commercial links between Canada and Mexico, the world’s 14th largest economy.

“Our North American bloc could be much stronger and more competitive. With Mexico, Canada and the U.S., we have a market of more than 500 million consumers. That’s a window, an opportunity.”

He smiles as he recalls a long-ago trip to Canada to visit an old girlfriend. The two had met in his hometown of Toluca, capital of Mexico State, when they were both sixteen, and he visited her at her home in a small town outside Toronto after she moved back there with her family.

“It was beautiful. I loved it. I visited Niagara Falls. I don’t know the rest of the country: Montreal, Quebec and Ottawa. I am still missing these parts. And I need to go there,” he said.

From a young age, Mr. Pena Nieto knew he wanted a career in politics and began by working for Arturo Montiel, a distant relative and former governor of Mexico State, home to 15 per cent of the country’s 112 million people. (These days he avoids mention of his old mentor, who was accused of using public funds to amass a fortune including several luxury apartments in Mexico and France.)

Mr. Pena Nieto served in various administrative positions in the PRI’s state government. In 2005, he was elected governor and had a solid record in office, increasing state expenditure on infrastructure improvements, building a new highway, implementing tax reform and re-structuring the state’s debt.

When asked to name his political heroes, Mr. Pena Nieto mentions Ghandi for his ability to achieve democracy through peaceful means, and Sir Winston Churchill. He laughs off the comparison some members of the U.S. Congress have made between him and former U.S. president John F. Kennedy.

Certainly, Mr. Pena Nieto does not appear to share JFK’s intellectual heft or elite background, and yet both leaders have two notable traits in common: Roman Catholicism and womanizing. During his first marriage, Mr. Pena Nieto fathered two children with different women and acknowledged in an interview that he had a weakness for women, according to journalist Alberto Tavira, who wrote a book on the topic. Mr. Tavira also noted Mr. Pena Nieto closeness to his family and three siblings.

Come Dec. 1, Mexico’s next president will also have to show he has the gravitas and leadership to guide his country forward, usher through reforms in a divided Congress and face down drug lords – as well as disenchanted Mexicans.

As the interview draws to a close, Mr. Pena Nieto stands up and shakes hands, with his trademark smile, not a hair out of place, as fresh-faced as when he began.

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