Mexico President Enrique Pena Nieto at a presentation Jan. 9, 2013, in Mexico… (Alex Cruz / European Pressphoto…)
MEXICO CITY — Since Enrique Peña Nieto assumed the post of president here last month, his fellow Mexicans have grown accustomed to his public speaking style, which -- most of the time at least -- is as carefully manicured as his famous pompadour.
Each word from Peña Nieto’s lips tends to be enunciated with the accent-free precision of a TV newscaster; each idea is limned (no doubt thanks to a passel of talented speechwriters) with a simple clarity that can border on the graceful.
Mexicans may not all agree with Peña Nieto -- after all, he received only 39% of the vote in what was essentially a three-way contest for the presidency in July -- but it’s difficult to imagine that they can’t understand him.
This week, however, Peña Nieto talked himself into a rare linguistic pothole. And among his detractors there was much rejoicing.
In a speech at Mexico City’s National Palace, the president struggled to say the full name of a key public agency that’s most commonly known by its initials, IFAI, technically the Instituto Federal de Acceso a la Informacion y Proteccion de Datos. Or, in English, the Federal Institute of Access to Information and Data Protection.
A video clip of the speech shows Peña Nieto clumsily referring to the agency as the “Institute for Information and of Access to … of Information, and of Access to Public Opinion, of all the Information Available for the Citizenry from the Government.”
Critics seized on the gaffe and quickly spread the video evidence around the Internet. Soon after, however, the 41-second clip was blocked on YouTube, Twitter and other outlets, replaced by a black screen and the statement, “This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim made ¿¿by Televisora ¿¿Hermosillo SA de CV,” a private Mexican broadcasting company.
This led to charges that the government was censoring the embarrassing clip. And suddenly, Peña Nieto had an issue on its hands that, however minor, neatly encompassed two of the most widespread concerns about him.
The first is the suspicion that Peña Nieto, despite his presidential good looks, is not intellectually suited to the job, a suspicion fueled, during the campaign, by his inability to name three favorite books.
The second is the suspicion that Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, now back in the presidential palace after a 12-year hiatus, was up to its old, censoring ways. During the party’s previous 71-year run, it earned a reputation for anti-democratic trickery.
A representative of the Peña Nieto team declined to comment on the matter Thursday afternoon. But by then, the clip had been reposted numerous times. (You can watch a video of the gaffe, in Spanish, here.)
If nothing else, the moment has given Peña Nieto’s opponents a rare chance to ding him on style points. Observers of the often-messy world of Mexican politics have noted the efficient, well-planned manner in which Peña Nieto's team has rolled out his Cabinet announcements and his major policy proposals. Columnist Lorenzo Meyer, a prominent PRI critic, recently referred to it as a political “blitzkrieg.”
Indeed, such efficiency -- along with post-electoral disarray among the political parties to the left and the right of the PRI -- has been a chief concern for those Mexicans who fear that the PRI is on the cusp of re-assuming its status as single-party hegemon.
Thursday, however, was a time for the president’s critics to take to the Web and gleefully bash him for his mistake.
On Twitter, where “IFAI” was one of Mexico’s top trending topics, one wag feared what would happen if Peña Nieto ever had to say the full name of Mexico’s federal home mortgage program, which goes by the initials FOVISSTE.