Does Mexico deserve an apology from Spain for the Conquest?

Who’s sorry now?
Who’s sorry now?
Image: AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo
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Does the passing of 500 years excuse a colonial power from apologizing for conquering another land? Mexico’s president Andrés Manuel López Obrador doesn’t think so.

“I have sent a letter to the King of Spain and another letter to the Pope so that a list of grievances is compiled and an apology is made to indigenous people for violations to what are now called human rights,” he said this week in a tweeted video, with a Mayan temple as a backdrop.

In the hours after AMLO’s announcement, Mexicans—and Spaniards—have weighed in with a variety of reasons why they deem his demand folly.

The Spanish government answered with a resounding no (link in Spanish), saying that Spain’s “arrival” in what is present-day Mexico cannot be judged by today’s standards. Many Mexicans, meanwhile, are scoffing at the idea of an apology. One senator burst into laughter when asked about AMLO’S crusade. “Where was the president 500 years ago?” she joked. “We’re over that stage, and proud of it.”

AMLO’s request is not completely far-fetched, others say. Other governments have recently asked for forgiveness for trampling over other people, including France for torturing Algerians and Canada for forcing indigenous students to assimilate. The situation is decidedly murkier in Mexico.

Things do change

Unlike Canada and France, whose offenses were inflicted while modern states, Spain at the time of the Conquest was a very different entity than today, tweeted historian Alfredo Ávila. “It would be like France demanding that Italy ask it for forgiveness because Julius Caesar conquered Gaul,” he wrote.

And where would the apologizing stop? Should the descendants of the rulers of the Aztec Empire that subjugated neighboring indigenous peoples join in? And what about those peoples, who in turn joined forces with the Spaniards to defeat the Aztecs?

Much of the backlash focused on AMLO’s throwback notions of Mexican identity, which glorify the country’s pre-Hispanic past and glaze over racial inequity by grouping all Mexicans as mestizos, or a mix between Spaniards and indigenous people. Last year, the president headed an indigenous ceremony at pre-Hispanic ruins to ask Mother Earth for permission to build a train through the Yucatán peninsula that he says will bring economic opportunities to indigenous communities in the area. Never mind that some of those communities are against the project or that AMLO’s own grandfather (Spanish) was born in the Spanish region of Cantabria.

This time, AMLO’s quest to redeem indigenous people is tied to the 500th anniversary next year of the fall of Tenochtitlán, now Mexico City, and the 200th anniversary of Mexico’s independence. Some pointed out that the reckoning shouldn’t be with Spain.

“If we’re going to demand an apology for the Conquest, we would have to demand it from the descendants of the conquistadors—and we live in Mexico, not in Madrid,” tweeted one commentator.

“It’s urgent to build a new narrative of our history that puts us at the center as actors of the same, instead of continuing to reinforce our characterization as eternal victims,” wrote another. “We don’t need other countries to ask for forgiveness but to reconcile among ourselves.”

To his credit, López Obrador said he, too, would be apologizing for injustices committed against indigenous people after Mexico’s independence in 1821. Still, some complained that the whole affair was an opportunistic deployment of us-vs-them rhetoric to distract from pressing national issues, including the rising number of homicides, the slowing economy, and pending laws (Spanish) for a much-needed revamp of the education system. “I know that your attention span is only about 500 years, but could you cut it back to a few hours? Today education reform will be discussed,” tweeted one observer.

A move we’ve seen before

If AMLO’s strategy was to divert attention, it’s been effective, though not very original. The same us-vs-them tactic has been deployed—with a fair amount of success—by populists elsewhere, including by Donald Trump north of the border. Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro even made the same demand of Spain (Spanish) a couple of years ago, though unlike AMLO, he asked for “historical compensation.” 

In a populist jiujitsu move, Santiago Abascal, leader of Spanish far-right-wing, anti-immigrant party Vox, quickly used AMLO’s proposal to fan his own base ahead of elections next month. He added insult to injury by using the old Spanish spelling for the country’s name.

“López Obrador, contaminated by pro-indigenous populism, doesn’t understand that in asking reparations from Spain he’s in reality insulting Méjico,” he tweeted.