Sorry not sorry: Spain rejects Mexico’s demand for apology for colonial abuses

The 500-year-old wounds of the Spanish conquest were ripped open afresh on Monday when Mexico's president urged Spain and the Vatican to apologize for their "abuses" -- a request Madrid said it "firmly rejects."

Sorry not sorry: Spain rejects Mexico's demand for apology for colonial abuses
Hernán Cortés, with 200 Spaniards and 5,000 Indians defeats a larger Aztec force in 1520. Photo: Unknown/ Archivo Iconografico, S.A./CORBIS

Spain's centuries of dominance in the New World, backed by the Catholic Church, leapt from the history books to the headlines when Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador called on Spanish King Felipe VI and Pope Francis to apologize for the conquest and the rights violations committed in its aftermath.

“I have sent a letter to the king of Spain and another to the pope, calling for a full account of the abuses and urging them to apologize to the indigenous peoples (of Mexico) for the violations of what we now call their human rights,” Lopez Obrador said.   

He made the remarks in a video, filmed at the ruins of the indigenous city of Comalcalco and posted on Facebook and Twitter.   

“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 (indigenous) temples,” added the anti-establishment leftist.

“The time has come to reconcile. But let us ask forgiveness first.”   Spain's rejection was immediate and blunt.

“The government of Spain deeply regrets that the letter the Mexican president sent to his majesty the king, whose contents we firmly reject, has been made public,” it said in a statement.

“The arrival, 500 years ago, of Spaniards to present Mexican territory cannot be judged in the light of contemporary considerations,” it said.   

“Our two brother nations have always known how to read our shared past without anger and with a constructive perspective.”

300-year reign

Lopez Obrador made the remarks during a visit to the Mayan pyramids of Comalcalco, in his native Tabasco state, in southern Mexico.   

He later visited the nearby city of Centla, the scene of the first battle between Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes and the indigenous peoples of the land now known as Mexico, on March 14, 1519.

READ MORE: Who was Conquistador Hernán Cortés?

With the help of horses, swords, guns and smallpox — all unknown in the New World at the time — Cortes led an army of fewer than 1,000 men to defeat the Aztec empire, the start of 300 years of Spanish rule over Mexico.   

The abuses continued until independence from Spain in 1821, and beyond, Lopez Obrador said.

“Thousands of people were murdered during this period. One culture and civilization imposed itself on another,” he said later in a speech.   

“There are still open wounds. It's better to recognize that abuses were committed, and mistakes were made. It's better to ask forgiveness and seek to be brothers in a historic reconciliation.”

He added that he, too, planned to offer an apology, “because the repression of indigenous peoples continued after the colonial period.”

It's complicated

Mexico has a complicated relationship with its colonial past.

Its history, culture, food and the Mexican people themselves are the product of “mestizaje,” the mixing of the Old and New Worlds.   

According to a government study, 98 percent of Mexicans have some combination of indigenous, European and African ancestry.   

But although that mixture made modern Mexico — and gave the world the gifts of chocolate, tacos de carnitas and Day of the Dead — it is also a past tainted by violence, rape and oppression.

Lopez Obrador, 65, took office in December after a landslide election win that represented a firm break with Mexico's traditional political parties.   

A folksy populist, he pulls no punches in going after traditional elites, and has sought to cast himself as a champion of Mexico's indigenous peoples.   

Photo taken on January 30, 2019 Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (R) welcomes Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez. AFP 

But he had so far cultivated cordial relations with Spain and the Vatican, including during a visit to Mexico City by Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez earlier this year.

Sanchez, a fellow leftist, marked the occasion by presenting the Mexican president with his grandfather Jose Obrador's Spanish birth certificate, from 1893.

By AFP's Joshua Howat Berger, with Marianne Barriaux in Madrid

REACTION: Anger in Spain, eyerolls in Mexico over conquest row


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Denmark apologises to children taken from Greenland in 1950s

Denmark's government has formally apologised to the 22 Greenlanders who were moved to Denmark and cut off from their families in the 1950s in an attempt to bridge the cultural gap between the Scandinavian country and its then-colony.

Denmark apologises to children taken from Greenland in 1950s
Helene Thiesen, who was taken by Denmark from her family in Greenland in 1951, here pictured in 2016. Photo: Nikolai Linares/Ritzau Scanpix

In 1951, 22 children were chosen to be moved to Denmark from Greenland, which until 1953 was a Danish colony.

They were promised a better life in Denmark with the goal of them later returning to Greenland, as assimilated Danes, to form a future elite which could serve as a link between Copenhagen and Greenland's capital Nuuk.

In Denmark, the children were deprived of contact with relatives and once they returned to Greenland they were not reunited with their parents but instead put in an orphanage. Many of them would never see their families again.

“We cannot change what happened. But we can take responsibility and apologise to those we should have cared for but failed to do,” Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said in a statement.

“I have been following the case for many years and I am still deeply touched by the human tragedies it contains,” said Frederiksen, who has sent a letter to each of the six children who are still alive.

One of them, Helene Thiesen, who was seven years old at the time she left for Denmark, said she was comforted by the apology.

“I am relieved that the apology has finally been delivered. It is really, really important. It means everything. I've been fighting for this since 1998,” she told the news agency Ritzau.

The official apology follows the publishing of a study which examined the fates of the children.

Greenland's Prime Minister Kim Kielsen was quoted in the government statement saying that he was moved as he learned of the plight of the children and reflected on how “cooperation between Denmark and Greenland has developed a lot. Today we are equals, looking back on history together”.

The massive Arctic territory of Greenland, now an autonomous territory within the kingdom of Denmark, has said that full independence is in the future, though no timetable has been set.

Greenland still relies on Denmark for state functions like maintaining the currency, foreign relations and defence policy, and separating would mean the loss of an annual subsidy of some 480 million euros or 60 percent of its budget.

READ ALSO: Glacial 1991 day in Greenland belatedly sets Arctic cold record