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Mexico’s president wants Spain to apologize for the conquistadors, almost exactly 500 years later

Andrés Manuel López Obrador prompts a diplomatic row by revisiting the origins of the European nation’s involvement in his country.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. (Marco Ugarte/AP)
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MEXICO CITY — Five hundred years after the Spanish conquest of modern-day Mexico, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has a demand for the Spanish government: Apologize.

López Obrador, who was elected last year, released a video Monday, describing a letter he wrote to Spain’s King Felipe VI. In the letter, he said, he urged both the king and the pope to “apologize to the indigenous peoples [of Mexico] for the violations of what we now call their human rights.”

The letter has irritated a normally strong relationship between Mexico and Spain, the world’s two richest Spanish-speaking countries. The Spanish government released a statement late Monday saying that it, “deeply regrets the disclosure of the letter the president of Mexico sent to the king on March 1,” adding that it “firmly rejected” López Obrador’s assertion.

Spanish politicians swiftly attacked López Obrador, claiming he was unfairly holding Spain’s current government responsible for the sins of the empire. Antonio Miguel Carmona, leader of the ruling Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, told Mexico’s El Universal that the comments were, “a very serious error that denotes a deep ignorance. You can not judge the events of 500 years ago through the prism of 2019.”

On Tuesday, López Obrador tried to provide reassurance, saying that, “We are not going to descend into a confrontation, either with the government of Spain nor with any other government.”

The historical record is full of examples of Spanish troops committing abuses during the country’s conquest of Mexico, which began with the arrival of Hernan Cortés on the Mexican coast in 1519. It continued through 1521, when Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire, fell to the Spanish.

About 100,000 Aztecs died in Tenochtitlan alone. Many others died of small pox, which the Spanish brought with them to Mexico. The massacres of the conquest are no secret in modern Mexico; they are documented in — among other places — the Diego Rivera murals that cover the National Palace in Mexico City.

“Not a single stone remained left to burn and destroy,” wrote one witness in Tenochtitlan.

In the subsequent centuries, the Mexico-Spain relationship bloomed. After the Spanish Civil War, thousands of Spanish citizens fled their nation to Mexico by boat. Mexican politicians tried to develop a national pride around a so-called mestizo identity, a mix of Spanish and indigenous ancestry. Bilateral trade between the countries is valued at about $10 billion per year. In January, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez visited López Obrador here, in what was mostly seen as a warm meeting.

The Spanish news media has been quick to point out that López Obrador’s own grandfather was born in Cantabria, in northern Spain.

Now 65, López Obrador came of age politically as an activist working with indigenous groups in southern Mexico, whom he saw as being exploited by Mexico’s elite. When he ran for president, his website described the way in which “cultural colonialism has denied our diversity.”

Still, his demand for an apology appears to have caught the Spanish by surprise, coming as López Obrador appeared to be moderating, refusing to criticize even President Trump, whom he once railed against publicly. Then came the letter and Monday’s video.

“There were massacres and oppression. The so-called conquest was waged with the sword and the cross. They built their churches on top of the temples,” López Obrador said in the video, which he filmed at the ruins of the indigenous city of Comalcalco, in southern Mexico, and published on social media.

In the video, López Obrador stands next to his wife, Beatriz Gutiérrez Müller, who has been made coordinator of the Honorary Advisory Council of Mexico’s Historical and Cultural Memory initiative.

Some analysts have suggested that one possible reason for the letter might be López Obrador’s disappointment with how Spain has handled the 500th anniversary of Cortés’ arrival in Mexico. Spain’s government has not planned any major public events revisiting the dark side of the conquest, according to El Pais, the Spanish newspaper, and is instead focusing on the 80th anniversary of the Spanish exodus to Mexico, after the Spanish Civil War.

One of the few public comments the current Spanish government has made regarding Cortés came from the country’s minister of culture, José Guirao, in a recent news conference, before López Obrador’s letter was made public. Asked about the way Cortés is viewed in Mexico today, Guirao responded tersely.

“Not very nicely,” he said.