- - Tuesday, April 2, 2019

MADRID — As Democratic presidential candidates revive a debate over reparations for slavery in their 2020 campaigns, Mexico’s new leftist president is bringing up an even older grudge, sparking outrage by demanding that Spain’s king and Pope Francis officially apologize for the conquest of Mexico a half-millennium ago.

“It is rather odd that at this moment the Mexican president should demand apologies for events that occurred 500 years ago,” Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell said while accompanying Spanish King Felipe VI on a state visit to Argentina late last month.

Some analysts say new Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador wanted to embarrass the king during his Latin American visit by revealing contents of a letter that he sent to Spain’s monarch and the Vatican, accusing them of never acknowledging their role in subjugating Mexico’s native inhabitants.

With a political base that includes many of Mexico’s indigenous voters, Mr. Lopez Obrador was making no apologies for the demand, even as Mexican opposition parties ridiculed the demand as unrealistic and unproductive.

Mr. Lopez Obrador said he sent the letter to the king and pope “to ask that they make an account of the injustices and apologize to the indigenous peoples for the violations of what are now known as human rights. There were killings, impositions, the so-called conquest was carried out with the cross and the sword.”

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the conquest of the ancient Aztec empire in what is modern-day Mexico by Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes, who headed a band of a few hundred soldiers and some priests against vastly more numerous Aztec armies.

Cortes prevailed through superior military technology, as well as through alliances with rival Indian tribes seeking to unseat Aztec Emperor Montezuma.

Spanish international law professor Ramon Peralta, who has written and lectured extensively on Spain’s colonial legacy, said Mr. Lopez Obrador likely was angling for the same kind of admission from Spain’s head of state that President Obama offered for centuries of black slavery in the U.S. in his 2013 visit to Africa.

A tearful speech by Mr. Obama in Ghana was followed by a series of resolutions by Congress and several state legislatures apologizing for the use of slave labor during America’s early history.

Those expressions of regret, in turn, have spurred 2020 Democratic hopefuls such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro to rally behind the idea that the federal government should pay reparations to descendants of black slaves.

But Mr. Lopez Obrador’s bid to rally international support for his indigenous populism seems to have backfired.

Spain will not apologize for abuses committed 500 years ago any more than we would ask Italy to apologize for invasions by Julius Caesar during the time of the Roman Empire,” said Mr. Borrel, who is a socialist.

Awkward position

But the Mexican president’s demand also has put the leftist Spanish government of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez in an awkward position, forced to close ranks with the conservative opposition in the wake of sharp voter outcry against the apology demand.

“What Lopez Obrador said is an authentic affront to Spain, which is one of the most important nations in the history of humanity,” said conservative Popular Party leader Pablo Casado.

Spain’s historical legacy can be a tricky issue to negotiate. There is still palpable resentment of the “black legend” perpetrated by mostly English and German historians that painted a bleak picture of Spain’s colonial period in the Western Hemisphere and its effect on indigenous populations.

Mr. Casado said an “affected left” is writing a new “black legend” and that Mr. Lopez Obrador may have been hoping for a more sympathetic response from the socialist government. Mr. Sanchez made Mexico one of his first stops upon taking office.

The far-left Podemos party, which has supported Mr. Sanchez, endorsed Mr. Lopez Obrador’s call for a “joint group to make a narrative of what occurred and in a humble manner accept errors, apologize and reconcile ourselves.”

Podemos has embraced the leftist narrative on the treatment of the New World’s indigenous populations by European explorers and has called for the removal of the statue of Christopher Columbus from Madrid’s central district.

But Podemos has been dropping in the polls, while Vox, an upstart far-right party, is gunning to supplant it as the parliament’s fourth-largest party in general elections April 28.

Vox officials had no trouble making up their minds about Mr. Lopez Obrador’s request. Party spokesman Perez Reverte called the Mexican president an “imbecile.”

Efforts to assert indigenous rights and focus on Western (and particularly Spanish) misdeeds was very much in vogue in Latin America a decade ago, when outspoken leftist leaders held power in countries such as Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina and Chile. In Bolivia, union leader Evo Morales became the first indigenous candidate to win the presidency in 2006, and he remains in power to this day.

Conservative counterattack

But a new wave of conservative leaders in Brazil, Chile and Colombia likely means Mr. Lopez Obrador’s call for an apology will face significant pushback.

Greeting Spain’s royal couple on a state visit last week, center-right Argentine President Mauricio Macri raised his glass in his official toast to honor what he called “500 years since one of humanity’s greatest feats.”

It is the debate in the U.S. that may provide fuel for Mr. Lopez Obrador’s campaign for an apology.

Lopez Obrador’s inspiration may come more from the United States nowadays,” said Mr. Peralta.

Spanish academic Eduardo Fernandez Leina, who teaches at the Francisco Marroquin University in Guatemala, said the Lopez Obrador government’s complicated relationship with the Trump administration may have been a factor in picking a fight with Madrid and the Vatican. Mr. Trump has fumed over what he calls unchecked illegal immigration from Mexico and has even threatened to shut down the border if the situation does not improve, but Mr. Lopez Obrador has taken an unexpectedly low-key attitude to the rhetoric from Washington.

Mexico’s president may be bashing Spain to “detract public attention” from his surprisingly businesslike and cordial approach so far to Mr. Trump, despite the border wall debate and Mr. Trump’s penchant for critical tweets about Mexico and its Central American neighbors.

“He doesn’t want a fight with Trump for economic reasons, so he is capitalizing instead on historical grievances with Spain,” Mr. Fernandez Leina said.

George Mason University economist and author Tyler Cowen suggested that Mr. Lopez Obrador has picked a fight overseas to distract from his daunting obstacles and deep-seated problems of carrying out his agenda at home.

“The current demand for an apology is a distraction from the enduring injustice of Mexico’s segregation,” Mr. Cowen recently wrote for the Bloomberg News service.

“If Spaniards found their own reasons for wishing to apologize, that would be a good result. But on this demand, they are correct to give it a pass,” Mr. Cowen said.

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