Mexico: A president in hiding

MEXICO CITY — “Where’s the restroom where Peña Nieto hid?” I asked a group of students upon my arrival at my alma mater, the Universidad Iberoamericana, here in Mexico City.

They all knew what I was talking about—and a few pointed me in the right direction. I entered that infamous restroom like an anthropologist, searching for reminders of the past or forgotten symbols. But I only found clean toilets and shiny sinks.

In 2012, when Enrique Peña Nieto was the Revolutionary Institutional Party’s presidential candidate, he gave a speech on campus. Afterward, several Ibero students launched a protest and followed Peña Nieto, shouting and holding banners. Peña Nieto must have been frightened by the protesters because, rather than engaging them in a dialogue, he fled to this restroom with his security team.

Shortly after the incident, officials from Peña Nieto’s party falsely claimed that the protests had been staged not by students but by “trained” agitators. Soon after, 131 student protesters involved in the demonstration displayed their student IDs from Ibero on social media, sparking the “I Am No. 132” movement.

Peña Nieto went on to win a heavily contested presidential election, but his reluctance to face problems head-on that day at Ibero betrayed a habit of running away and hiding that has endured throughout his presidency.

Here are some examples of what I mean:

1. Last year, as criticism of Peña Nieto mounted over the purchase of a multimillion-dollar luxury home by his wife, Angelica Rivera, from a government contractor, the president refused to deal with accusations of a conflict of interest. Rather, Rivera tried to explain the situation herself in a homemade video. Peña Nieto steered clear of the controversy and commissioned a close aide, Virgilio Andrade, to defend him.

2. In 2014, 43 college students from Ayotzinapa, Mexico, disappeared and were presumed dead, but the president waited 10 days to speak publicly about the case. Furthermore, it took him one month to meet with the victims’ families. A year and a half after the students vanished, Peña Nieto still has no credible answers for what happened to them, though he opposes having international researchers help with the case.

3. It took Peña Nieto 256 days to respond to Republican presidential contender Donald Trump’s racist rhetoric against Mexican immigrants. And Peña Nieto’s response hasn’t done much good. Trump continues to poke fun at the Mexican government in his speeches, and to insist that Mexico will pay for a proposed wall along the southern border of the U.S.

4. Despite the fact that about 52,000 people were killed during the first three years of his administration, Peña Nieto’s official policy has been to ignore the growing threat of violence in Mexico. His administration might become the most violent in the country’s recent history, yet Peña Nieto would prefer not to talk about it. Attacks against journalists in Mexico are constant, as are human rights violations — just recently, a video shared on social media showed two soldiers and a federal police agent torturing a Mexican woman. But has Peña Nieto addressed the issue? No—as with other problems, he prefers to hide.

The sad fact is that this president has resisted any and all accountability since he assumed office (he’s never even given a single news conference). Either he’s terrified of questions, or he just has no answers.

Back in 2012, the students at Ibero recognized the pattern. My recent visit to the campus was to talk about my new book, “Take a Stand: Lessons from Rebels” (apologies for the plug). I spoke with both teachers and students about Peña Nieto’s leadership style. Like so many millions of Mexicans, they’re fed up with a president who prefers to hide rather than lead. According to a recent poll conducted by the newspaper Reforma, 66% of Mexicans disapprove of the way that Peña Nieto is running things.

I hadn’t been to the university in 34 years; I graduated in 1982, a few years after an earthquake damaged many buildings. Ibero has since relocated to a new and modern campus in another part of the city. What remains from my time there, however, is an inquisitive spirit exemplified by the school’s motto—“The Truth Will Set Us Free”—that should serve to inspire any student.

I’m very proud of the students at my university, past and present. In 2012, they saw what sort of leader Peña Nieto would be. And their smart, vigilant and inquisitive attitude remains.

Before I left the restroom at Ibero, I looked at my reflection in the big, unforgiving mirror. Here, years ago, I thought, a presidential candidate who was hiding from students saw his fear reflected back at him. There are people in this world who never change. And there are images that never disappear.

Jorge Ramos, an Emmy Award-winning journalist, is the host of Fusion’s weekly television news show, “America With Jorge Ramos,” and is a news anchor on the Univision Network. Originally from Mexico and now based in Florida, Ramos is the author of nine best-selling books, most recently, “Take a Stand: Lessons From Rebels.”

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