All My Children

Mexico’s Telenovela President: Enrique Peña Nieto’s Saga of Scandal, Gaffes, and Connections

The telegenic president-elect is married to a soap-opera star, fathered two kids out of wedlock, and is close to a disgraced former president, says Teresa Puente.

Christian Palma / AP Photos

The personal life of Mexico's next president, Enrique Peña Nieto, reads like a telenovela script. It could be called "Because you know me," which was his campaign slogan, as the personal affairs of Mexico's next president have become public.

The first wife of the 45-year-old former governor of the state of Mexico died in 2007 of epilepsy. The following year, he announced he was in a romantic relationship with Mexican soap-opera actress Angelica Rivera, and they married in 2010—but not before receiving a blessing at the Vatican. Rivera starred in a telenovela called Destilando Amor, or Distilling Love.

It later came out that in 2005, when Peña Nieto was married to his first wife, he fathered a child out of wedlock with a woman named Maritza Diaz Hernandez. Around the same time, Peña Nieto fathered a second child out of wedlock, who later died.

His fathering skills have been called into question by his ex-lover, Diaz Hernandez, who posted on Facebook in January 2012 that Peña Nieto is a neglectful dad.

Some have compared Peña Nieto, who is the standard bearer of the old-guard PRI, or Institutional Revolutionary Party, to the late President John F. Kennedy, or even the disgraced John Edwards, but more for good looks and womanizing, as opposed to bright ideas.

"He looks handsome like a soap-opera-type figure," said Beatriz Magaloni, a political science professor at Stanford University. "But nobody has a clue who he really is."

Peña Nieto’s critics claim he is is out of touch with ordinary Mexicans. When asked by a reporter with El País, the Spanish newspaper, about the minimum wage in Mexico, he didn't know the answer. He also didn't know the price of corn tortillas. To the latter question, Peña Nieto answered "I am not the housewife."

Peña Nieto claimed his words were taken out of context and that he meant to say that he is not the housewife in his own home.

"He has an image as a buffoon, as an ignorant guy," said Jorge Mujica of Chicago, a former secretary general of the PRD or Party of the Democratic Revolution, whose candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, finished second to Peña Nieto. "He's not the brightest guy. He has to use a teleprompter."

Peña Nieto also had an experience similar to what happened when Katie Couric asked U.S. presidential hopeful Sarah Palin what newspapers she reads. In December 2011, at a book fair in Guadalajara called the FIL, Peña Nieto said one of his favorite books was The Eagle's Throne. But he mistakenly said it was written by Enrique Krause, when it was actually written by Carlos Fuentes. Then he struggled to remember the names of books and authors he liked. His gaffe went viral on Twitter.

Peña Nieto also once said, according to the Mexican magazine Proceso, "I really don't like to read … I'll ask my assistants to write up some flash cards or something."

The writer Carlos Fuentes, who recently died, said after the book fair incident that Peña Nieto did not have the right to become the president of Mexico due to his "ignorance."

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Peña Nieto later apologized and thanked those who criticized him—for exercising their democratic right to express themselves.

"They are incredibly elitist," Mujica said, referring to the politician’s family. He said Peña Nieto's wife tweeted about "lazy and violent" Indians in Mexico, and that his daughter sent pejorative tweets using the word "prole" a shortened term for the proletariat or the poor.

How did Peña Nieto get into politics?

His uncle and his godfather were governors of the state of Mexico and he is from a politically connected family. He is close to the former Mexican president, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who some say was behind his campaign and molded this handsome candidate who seems ready-made for television. Peña Nieto is part of Mexico's ruling class.

"It is so worrisome. [Peña Nieto] is such an empty character, but he does represent very powerful interests," said John Ackerman, a professor at the Institute for Legal Research at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, known as UNAM.

Ackerman also described Peña Nieto as "a wolf in sheep's clothing." He said the PRI, which has been locked out of the presidency for 12 years, has not changed in the 10 states where the party never lost power, and that those states are among the most violent, underdeveloped, and corrupt in Mexico.

"These states have not undergone a democratic transition. They are all under the thumbs of their governors," Ackerman said.

Still, Peña Nieto's personal relationships, questions about his intellectual heft, and corruption in the PRI did not dissuade 38 percent of Mexicans from voting for him. But neither did he receive a majority of the votes.

The second- and third-place candidates, the PRD’s Lopez Obrador, and Josefina Vazquez Mota of the PAN, or National Action Party, garnered a combined 57 percent of the vote. So it may be difficult for Peña Nieto to govern without the support of the other political parties in the Mexican Congress.

"It's a victory with some limits to it," said Eric L. Olson, associate director of the Mexico Institute at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

Peña Nieto will have to convince those who did not vote for him that the PRI, often compared to the old Soviet Politburo, is no longer the corrupt party that imperiously ruled Mexico for 71 years, and which made deals with drug traffickers and monied interests.

"He will have to show that the PRI he will lead will be democratic and honest," Olson said. "There are a lot of doubts about that."