The President of Mexico is right, Spain must apologise for its colonial past

Statue of Hernan Cortes and Medellin Castle, Spain

Although timidly reported by the British press, there has been a major diplomatic blow-up between the Mexican President and the Spanish authorities. The president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, sent on Monday a letter to the Spanish Monarch, King Felipe V, as well as to the Pope for the crimes committed against the Mexican population during the ‘La Conquista’ (the Conquest) of America, in commemoration of the 500 years arrival of the Spanish coloniser, Hernán Cortes.

In fact, the missive does not ask for the condemnation of the colonisation itself nor economic redress but only for apologies for the crimes committed and culture imposition during the process. This letter was widely condemned by the Spanish counterpart as well as a wide range of political parties from the Iberian peninsula.

Except from the Podemos MPs that praised the initiative, the rest of the parties qualified it as a scorn and as a step backwards in the diplomatic relations between both states. While, reading the online comments of the piece of news, released by a left-wing newspaper ‘El País’, I encountered with sadness that even the progressive media as well as the current socialist government, had such a contemptuous view of the topic. Online commentators even seemed amused by the claim of apologies, saying that it happened 500 years ago, and any critique today was ridicule.  

Some of the first responses to the letter have directed abuse at the President for his mainly Spanish descent. He has even been labelled as an ‘imbecile’ by one of the distinguished members of the (sexist and colonialist) Royal Academy of the Spanish language. Yet, the fact that politicians have picked on his origins is only evidence of the privilege Spanish and European elites enjoy in Latin America. Many of the continent’s political and economic leaders are white, while indigenous and afro-descent populations are still ostracised and discriminated against. The idea, widely accepted, that the conquest is something that has been overcome, is not only wrong but easily dismantled. Spain holds close political and economic ties with the region that are sustained in unequal power relations. Plus, some of the biggest corporations, that played an objectionable role in Mexico’s economy, are Spanish.

As startling as it might seem for some of my fellow SOASians, in Spain there is little recognition of the atrocities (including genocide and crimes against humanity) committed by Spanish forces during colonisation. Let alone any critique of the enduring negative consequences for native people. The narrative of the civilization endeavour as a beneficial project for the colonised is deeply ingrained in Spanish beliefs and its national history. Recently, with the new patriotic rhetoric adopted by the conservative party Partido Popular and the liberal party Ciudadanos, it seems like the pride of the ‘Discovery of America’ is resurging with an obnoxious imperialist and xenophobic undertone.

The new leader of the conservative group, Pablo Casado declared in one of his major event for the 12 October (day of the ‘Hispanidad’ that celebrates the ‘discovery of America’ by Cristopher Columbus) that it commemorates ‘one of the greatest periods, not only of Spain ,but of the history of mankind’ (of course no woman being involved, they also repudiate any kind of inclusive language).

Spain must recognise its role and responsibility for the atrocities committed during the ‘Conquista’, apologise and review its own past, starting with the school curriculum.

Decolonisation of the past is imperative to construct fair and equal relations between Spain and those countries affected by colonisation, restore the colonial memory and advance towards a just and democratic narrative.

I’ll end with the words of the extraordinary Colombian writer García Márquez, pronounced during his acceptance speech for the Nobel prize, that unfortunately is still very relevant for Spain and the rest of imperialist countries today.

[…] the immeasurable violence and pain of our history are the result of age-old inequities and untold bitterness, and not a conspiracy plotted three thousand leagues from our home. But many European leaders and thinkers have thought so, with the childishness of old-timers who have forgotten the fruitful excess of their youth as if it were impossible to find another destiny than to live at the mercy of the two great masters of the world. This, my friends, is the very scale of our solitude.

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