Mexico President's House
Mexico's President Enrique Peña Nieto and First Lady Angélica Rivera. Photo: AP Photo/G20 Australia, Patrick Hamilton, File

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has denied any wrongdoing after becoming engulfed in another scandal involving luxury properties, government contractors and accusations of conflict of interest.

An investigation by the Wall Street Journal revealed on Tuesday that Peña Nieto purchased a house at an exclusive country club in Ixtapan de la Sal in his native Mexico state just weeks after becoming governor of the state in 2005.

Peña Nieto bought the property from Roberto San Roman, a businessman whose construction company went on to win over $100 million in state government contracts from 2005 to 2011. The same firm, Constructora Urbanizadora Ixtapan (CUISA), which had never before carried out federal projects, has also won at least 11 federal contracts since Peña Nieto became president in late 2012.

Peña Nieto’s office released a statement on Wednesday affirming that the house was purchased legally at full market value of $372,000 and publically disclosed among his assets. However, the identity of the seller of the property had not been known until now, the Wall Street Journal reported.

CUISA has denied that the sale of the property resulted in it gaining favored status under the Peña Nieto administration. The company said it won the contracts by offering the most competitive bids and emphasized that it has launched another 48 unsuccessful bids for federal contracts since Peña Nieto became president.

Three months of similar scandals

Peña Nieto’s office stated that he is not involved in the awarding of public contracts, but this is not the first time that he or those close to him have made use of luxury homes provided by favored contractors.

In November it emerged that Peña Nieto’s wife, the former soap star Angélica Rivera, had obtained a $7 million mansion in Mexico City from Grupo Higa, a firm that won contracts worth more than $590 million during Peña Nieto’s tenure as governor of the State of Mexico.

Grupo Higa was also part of the Chinese-led consortium awarded a controversial contract worth $3.75 billion to build a high-speed rail line between Mexico City and Querétaro. Rivera denied any wrongdoing but vowed to sell the property, while the train line contract was swiftly rescinded amid accusations that the bidding process had been rigged.

Later in November it transpired that in 2011 and 2012 Peña Nieto had also benefitted from rent-free use of another luxury property in Mexico City owned by Grupo Higa.

Then, in December, the Wall Street Journal revealed that just two months before taking office, Mexico’s Finance Minister, Luis Videgaray, had bought another mansion at an exclusive golf course in the State of Mexico from the owner of Grupo Higa.

Under pressure at home, but still feted abroad

This string of revelations led to widespread criticism and allegations that the Peña Nieto administration has been trading favors for influence.

Senator Javier Lozano of the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) called on Wednesday for the appointment of an independent special prosecutor to investigate Pena Nieto’s properties.

With state and legislative elections looming in June, Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has implied that rival politicians were responsible for leaking the latest story to the press in a bid to taint the government.

While polls indicate his administration has lost support in Mexico in recent months, Peña Nieto continues to receive the support of prominent world leaders like Barack Obama.

Despite the ongoing property scandals and concerns over widespread human rights violations in Mexico, Obama welcomed the Mexican president to the White House earlier this month.

“I’ve congratulated President Peña Nieto on some of his structural reforms that I think will unleash even further the enormous potential of the Mexican economy,” Obama said, while avoiding direct reference to the public security crisis that has gripped the country.

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Barack Obama
President Barack Obama. Photo: AP Photo/Jim Bourg, Pool

For much of President Barack Obama’s time in office, he has been accused of ignoring his southern neighbors. Drawing down military involvement in the Middle East, along with continued crises in other areas of the world, has resulted in little public attention paid to Latin America for the past six years.

Obama’s announcement in mid-December of his intention to begin normalization of diplomatic relations with Cuba proved to be a critical juncture—his administration overturned a policy long repudiated by other Latin American leaders and showed his willingness to work with a growing array of leftist leaders in the region.

This new policy, however, received only cursory mention in his State of the Union speech earlier this week. While no topic in the sprawling address outlining his policy objectives for the next two years received much individual attention, Obama delighted many watchers by vowing to overturn a policy that was “long past its expiration date.” He continued:

“When what you’re doing doesn’t work for fifty years, it’s time to try something new. Our shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere; removes a phony excuse for restrictions in Cuba; stands up for democratic values; and extends the hand of friendship to the Cuban people. And this year, Congress should begin the work of ending the embargo. As His Holiness, Pope Francis, has said, diplomacy is the work of ‘small steps.’ These small steps have added up to new hope for the future in Cuba. And after years in prison, we’re overjoyed that Alan Gross is back where he belongs. Welcome home, Alan.”

On the eve of formal talks between the two countries beginning with a focus on migration policies, Obama was careful not to delve too much into the details of what normalization would look like. While much still needs to be decided, normalization of relations has the potential to be a huge part of Obama’s foreign policy legacy and his State of the Union address referenced this policy without risking the possibility of upsetting the start of talks.

What about everyone else?

While that approach can be seen as pragmatic, what was more surprising was the way the rest of the speech failed to address any other country in the region. In the past year, a number of major shifts have occurred in Latin America, but Obama did not touch upon any of them.

One the greatest omissions was perhaps Mexico. The past year has seen major upheavals in the country, particularly regarding the distrust between the Mexican state and its people. This past week, another scandal broke to further degrade this relationship when it was revealed that President Enrique Peña Nieto had bought his home in a resort town from the same developer that subsequently won billions of dollars in government contracts.

While this discovery alone might not have been devastating, it contributes to a shaky relationship that exploded during the investigations into the missing Ayotzinapa students late last year. The state is largely seen as bearing some responsibility for the students’ deaths, as a result of local officials’ strong links to drug cartels and impunity with which they rule many areas of the country. The United States has been largely silent on both issues, and has ignored the growing unrest across its borders, including in Tuesday’s speech.

Silence on immigration

Surprisingly, Obama barely addressed the perennial hot-button issue of immigration, either. He did point out the passion present in the debate, but stopped there.

Yes, passions still fly on immigration, but surely we can all see something of ourselves in the striving young students, agree that no one benefits when a hardworking mom is taken from her child and concede that it’s possible to shape a law that upholds the United States’ history as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants.

This brief mention fell far short of calling on Congress to pass a comprehensive reform or to extend his executive action. In 2014, one of the biggest issues of the year surrounded the thousands of children refugees fleeing from Central American nations via unsafe passage through Mexico. While Obama did pass a reform to grant these populations refugee status in hopes of stemming the difficult journeys, he failed to focus on the larger issue of immigration roiling along the nation’s borders. Especially given the increasing voter interest and stake in the issue, his decision not to address immigration confounded many watching the speech.

And the list goes on. Obama failed to address evolving relations with Brazil, the ongoing upheaval in Venezuela, nor the significant elections that took place in Uruguay and Colombia.

However, Obama’s 2014 State of the Union speech failed to engage even one significant policy or diplomatic relation in the entire region. Therefore, Obama’s omission of his southern neighbors follows a long line of ignoring the region in his major policy speeches. Perhaps Cuba, finally, will open up the space and connections for the U.S. President to spend the last two years more deeply connecting with his diplomatic partners in Latin America.

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