Spain and Mexico’s centuries-old blame game
MADRID — The latest diplomatic spat in Spain has been 500 years in the making.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s demand that the king of Spain apologize for the abuses committed during the conquest has put pressure on Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez ahead of a national election and sparked debate on the issue of historic apologies.
It has also raised questions about how Spain deals with its colonial past at a time of rising nationalism as a reaction to the Catalan independence push.
“The incursion led by [Hernán] Cortés in our current territory was doubtlessly a founding event of the Mexican nation, but it was tremendously violent, painful and offensive,” Obrador wrote in a letter addressing Spanish King Felipe VI, dated on March 1 and published this week by Reforma.
“Mexico wants the Spanish state to admit its historical responsibility for these offenses and offer the appropriate apologies and political redress. For this reason, your majesty, the current Mexican authorities prepare a list of crimes that will be presented to the Kingdom of Spain before the end of the current year,” Obrador — a leftist who won the presidency in a landslide last year — wrote.
“We Spaniards went there and finished with the power of tribes who assassinated their neighbors cruelly and viciously, and that’s why a few [men] … conquered and civilized that land” — PP lawmaker Rafa Hernando
The demand hit a nerve in Spain. The country faces a general election on April 28, with polarizing views on the Catalan independence push dominating the debate. The Socialist government led by Sánchez, whom rivals accuse of treason because of his attempts to calm down the conflict via dialogue with separatists, rushed to reject the Mexican proposal.
“Spain will not offer those extemporaneous apologies,” Foreign Minister Josep Borrell told reporters during a trip to Argentina. “It looks a bit strange to demand an apology for events that occurred 500 years ago. Likewise, we aren’t going to ask the French Republic to offer an apology for what Napoleon’s soldiers did when they invaded Spain; neither are the French going to demand an apology from the Italians for Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul.”
Sánchez — a leader who enjoys the international spotlight and has embraced progressive causes from feminism to the environment to taking care of migrants — has remained silent on this one.
A senior Spanish government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said both sides have talked about the issue and thought the plan was to first discuss a “shared narrative” to avoid controversy. “We’re astonished,” the official said of Obrador’s approach.
That the Mexican demand had the potential to damage Sánchez’s electoral prospects was clear straightaway.
Popular Party leader Pablo Casado called it an “affront against Spain,” described Obrador as “Sánchez’s leftist friend” and vowed not to tolerate any country that “comes to lie, and insult, about the many and good things that Spaniards have given the world.”
Yet Obrador’s plans to commemorate the fall of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire — and México’s 200 years of independence — in 2021 with a bilateral ceremony with Spain suggest the controversy could remain alive for years.
“I think this is here to stay,” said the Spanish government official.
Both Borrell and his Mexican counterpart Marcelo Ebrard have tried to play down the significance of the incident, and committed to maintain a good bilateral relationship, but have not changed their stance.
Obrador’s initiative was also divisive in Mexico, with former President Vicente Fox and opposition lawmakers — from right and left — criticizing the move and warning that the demand may harm the relationship with Spain. “The history we’re writing is about strengthening ties, not about distancing ourselves,” Miguel Ángel Mancera, a former mayor of Mexico City, told reporters.
Beyond the diplomatic spat, and the political controversy, Obrador’s demand has sparked a debate on whether countries should apologize for their past crimes and to whom, as well as raising questions about national identity.
Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez | Philippe Marcou/AFP via Getty Images
Ignacio Marván, an economics professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said the issue has sparked huge controversy. “It’s a debate about political attitudes that’s always been present, and lights up from time to time,” he said, arguing that the Mexican right tends to vindicate the role of Spanish colonization while the left tends to emphasize Mexico’s indigenous origins and have a critical view of the conquest.
Soledad Loaeza, an international relations professor at the College of Mexico, said she doesn’t think Obrador took into account the Spanish election nor wants to influence Spanish politics. “We Mexicans feel like a blend of two cultures,” she said. “This sort of complaint may please some groups, but it’s not something that enjoys majority support so I’m not sure if the president will maintain it in the longer term, because majority support is what he seeks.”
In Spain, views on colonial history also depend very much on ideology, as proven by the reactions to the Mexican initiative.
“We Spaniards went there and finished with the power of tribes who assassinated their neighbors cruelly and viciously, and that’s why a few [men] … conquered and civilized that land,” PP lawmaker Rafa Hernando wrote on Twitter.
Ione Belarra of the far-left Podemos said Obrador was right to demand an apology from the king, and promised “a process of democratic and colonial memory.”
Such divisive positions are reflected in society. A survey of the Center for Sociological Research conducted in 1992 — the latest data on the issue — found that 33 percent of Spaniards said they feel “proud” of the Spanish conquest of America; 38 percent said they “accepted” history as it is, including “mistakes” committed by Spain; 9 percent said there is nothing to commemorate; and 5 percent spoke of a “genocide.”
The controversy has also potential to cause contagion in other Latin American countries. Peruvian Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa this week weighed in against Obrador at a public event in Argentina, saying: “The Mexican leader mistook his recipient. He should’ve sent that letter to himself, and answer why Mexico still has so many millions of Indians marginalized, poor, ignorant, exploited.”
Carlos Malamud, a researcher for think tank Instituto Elcano, said Obrador’s demand isn’t the first of its kind to be issued by a Latin American leader, with former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Bolivian President Evo Morales having done so in the past.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador | Alfredo Estrella/AFP via Getty Images
The difference, Malamud argued, is that this time it comes “at a very particular moment of Mexican political life and Spanish political life.”
Danielle Celermajer, a professor at the University of Sydney, said there are no rules when it comes to nations offering apologies for the errors of the past.
She said that since German Chancellor Willy Brandt went down on his knees at the Warsaw Ghetto in 1970, a number of Western leaders have offered apologies while some other demands for redress have been unanswered.
“Debates about apologies in relation to colonialism are debates about how we narrate our history and thus also about how we wish to represent our values today,” she said. “Progressives seek apologies, and generally conservatives resist them, vehemently insisting that the narratives we have of our glorious pasts need to be kept sacrosanct and not be sullied by political correctness.”
Source: WSJ, Politico
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