Mexico's leader and the Dalai Lama

Posted by Tim Johnson on October 11, 2013 

The Dalai Lama, center, speaks during a panel discussion at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, on Wednesday.

DAVID GOLDMAN — AP

The Dalai Lama arrived in Mexico today for a five-day visit and while he’ll travel around the country, he won’t be meeting with President Enrique Pena Nieto.

He’s getting the cold shoulder, but knowing him, I’m sure he understands.

The Dalai Lama is well aware of the pressure China exerts on nation after nation to shun him, casting him as an inexorable separatist. China routinely “punishes” governments and leaders who meet with the charismatic Tibetan Buddhist leader.

So organizers of his visit took a prudent step.

“We do not feel that the environment is favorable for this and we do not want to create political controversy that would hurt the visit,” Casa Tibet Mexico President Marco Antonio Karam told Agence France-Presse.

The Dalai Lama met privately with then-President Felipe Calderon during his last visit to Mexico in 2011. That sent China-Mexico relations into the freezer.

Pena Nieto has turned that around. In less than a year, he’s met at least three times with Chinese President Xi Jinping, including hosting him on a state visit here in Mexico in June. He saw Xi just last week at the APEC summit in Bali.

The warming has brought rewards for Mexico. China has lifted barriers on Mexican exports of pork products and 100 percent agave tequila. I asked Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas and Americas Society, what he thought about Pena Nieto’s warming with China and his reluctance to meet the Dalai Lama. Here’s part of what he wrote to me:

“For years Mexico and China have essentially seen each other as economic competitors, and Pena Nieto is looking for a fresh beginning, while China wants increased access to the United States through Mexico and also seeks participation in a liberalizing Mexican energy sector. Meeting with the Dalai Lama would potentially freeze these efforts or at the very least downgrade them, much as the decision of then-President Felipe Calderon was a major factor in keeping Mexico’s relations with China on ice during the previous sexenio. As a result, Los Pinos likely sees a meeting between President Pena Nieto and the Dalai Lama as inconvenient in the current circumstances.”

I was planning to ask the Dalai Lama about this at a news conference this afternoon but I was not let in. I hadn’t pre-registered with the Casa Tibet, and though a holder of a journalist card from Los Pinos, organizers said I couldn’t participate. Strikes me that the security for the visit was bizarrely tight. I’ve taken part in news conferences with the Dalai Lama in New York City, Boston, San Francisco, Tokyo and Dharmsala, India, and never saw anything quite like this. In any case, having sat down with him for a lengthy interview and taken part in probably 20 events with him for a book, I am sure that he is the last person to want nations (or people) to suffer China’s wrath. After all, Tibetans have felt that same pressure for more than half a decade.

The weakness of China’s position, of course, is that once presidents are out of office they often embrace the Dalai Lama. Former Mexican President Vicente Fox (2000-2006) is hosting the Tibetan spiritual leader on Tuesday in Guanajuato.

Once Pena Nieto’s out of office, he’ll probably gladly meet with the Dalai Lama.

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