US misses last chance to host Peña Nieto for a state visit
Standing in front of both U.S. and Mexican flags, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto stood shoulder-to-shoulder with President Donald Trump, smiling for the cameras and shaking hands before sitting down to sign a new North American trade agreement.
But the visit wasn’t in the East Room of the White House, it was in Buenos Aires, Argentina. And Peña Nieto didn’t get Trump to himself. (Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was there.) And it wasn’t an official state visit.
In fact, Peña Nieto is the first Mexican president in more than half a century not to be honored with a state visit to the United States – reflecting how far relations have fallen between the United States and America’s most important bilateral partner.
Peña Nieto’s term ended last week.
Some diplomats feel the slight – by both President Barack Obama and Trump – could cause lasting damage to the U.S.-Mexico relationship.
Jorge Guajardo, a former Mexican ambassador to China, said the long-time tradition showed that both sides recognized the importance of the partnership between neighbors, and regardless of the political challenges, they could put those differences aside when necessary.
“It’s the equivalent of having a block party,” Guajardo said. “You might have some difficult times. But you know you’re going to continue to see each other and need to maintain good contact. And when you stop that, there can be a rupture in the relationship.”
Mexico is the United States’ third-largest trading partner with $557.6 billion in goods traded between the two nations last year. The relationship is also critical on security and migration issues.
“No other country has as many connections to the United States as Mexico and so much at stake,” said Michael Shifter, who as president of the InterAmerican Dialogue has deep ties with many Western Hemisphere leaders. “If the relationship goes off course, it has significant consequences.”
The Trump administration insisted that the United States and Mexico maintained a strong partnership and pointed to comments made by Mexico’s Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray earlier this year that the Mexican government was closer with the Trump administration than previous administrations.
“President Trump and President Nieto have enjoyed a good working relationship proven by the recently signed historic (United States-Mexico-Canada trade agreement) and through the extensive bilateral cooperation to counter illicit narcotics trafficking.” said Judd Deere, a White House spokesman.
Officials also pointed to Trump thanking Peña Nieto for spending his last day in office with them so they could sign the agreement and describing how the three leaders had become great friends after a worthy battle.
“He’s a special man,” Trump said of Peña Nieto. “And he’s really done a good job, and we appreciate it very much.”
But Peña Nieto did not receive one of the grandest and most glamorous honors afforded by the White House. He did not receive a special arrival ceremony with a 21-gun salute on the South Lawn. He did not get to stay at the Blair House. He did not receive a state dinner at the White House. And, unlike some of the Mexican presidents before him, he did not get to address a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress.
The State Department records indicate Peña Nieto received a state visit on July 22, 2016, but Obama administration officials and the Mexican government say the information is wrong. That visit was strictly a bilateral meeting and a news conference.