“The ‘Spain Affair’ is not a foreign policy strategy, but a national strategy to achieve López Obrador’s political goals. At 7 am tomorrow, we are convinced a new controversy regarding Mexico’s foreign policy will arise. This is not over yet.”
Every morning at 7am President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) stands before dozens of politicians, journalists, and consultants to announce his plans for social programs, new political strategies, and other tidbits. On the morning of March 26th—two days after his government sent letters to the King of Spain, Philip VI, and the Vatican demanding apologies for the Spanish Conquest of Mexico—he said: “We were only asking for an apology.” Only an apology? We believe that if a government is asking for colonial pardon it should not take the situation lightly nor hastily; apologies are an important diplomatic mechanism that should be used thoughtfully.
In late March, President López Obrador and Mexican Foreign Affairs Secretary Marcelo Ebrard sent out two letters to the Spanish King and Pope Francis that urged both leaders to “apologize to the indigenous peoples [of Mexico] for the violations of what we now call their human rights” and other transgressions committed by conquistadors 500 years ago. They demanded the apologies be performed publicly before 2021. Later that week, the Spanish government released a statement “firmly rejecting” López Obrador’s assertion, highlighting that“the arrival of Spaniards 50 decades ago to present-day Mexican territory cannot be judged in light of contemporary considerations.” In addition to the King’s response, Pope Francis stated that in 2015 the Vatican had already issued an apology for the “many and grave sins committed against the indigenous peoples of the Americas” during the time of colonization and evangelization. The Pope also rejected Mexico’s invitation to visit the country again, claiming that he had more countries to go to. Funny enough, the former invitation was made by the Mexican clergy to commemorate 500 years of the evangelization of Mexico—a.k.a the fall of Tenochtitlan and the conquest of Mexico.
While Spaniards and Mexicans were under a constant bombardment of criticism and mockery and the Mexican Administration worried about handling its relationship with Spain, President Donald Trump threatened to close the U.S. border with Mexico. But, why is AMLO’s administration so keen on keeping the Spanish apology as the most relevant diplomatic event? We believe currently there are other urgent affairs in Mexico’s international agenda, especially regarding our northern neighbor: the United States under President Trump. The Mexican government has said very little about President Trump’s constant insults and the possible actions regarding the border. So, why are the Mexican government and people attacking Spain while we are under constant rhetorical bombardment by President Trump and have not answered back? We contend that it has to do with internal political strategies, polarization, and the need to maintain impeccable relations with the U.S.
The Spanish Apology
In 1836, fifteen years after Mexico’s independence from Spanish rule, both countries signed the Definitive Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the Mexican Republic and Her Majesty the Queen Governor of Spain, which represented a peace agreement to consolidate a new relationship and leave behind the painful colonial past. For centuries onward, Mexican-Spanish relations flourished politically and economically, being deeply rooted in mutual respect, recognition, and cooperation. For example, during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), around 25,000 Spanish refugees came to Mexico, filling the country with intellectuals, artists, and entrepreneurs. And, until 2018, Spain represented Mexico’s 4th most important business partner. So, why ask for a colonial apology now, almost 500 years later?
Different personalities within the Mexican government, including the Foreign Affairs Secretary and the First Lady, Beatriz Muller, have insisted that the request for an apology was not motivated by rancor or political control. In fact, they claim the petition responds to a reconciliation process and desire to bring the parts closer. Nevertheless, both the letters and the declarations of the Mexican government have disturbed the relationship between the states. In Mexico, AMLO’s declarations have been questioned by an endless number of politicians, academics, and journalists; likewise, they have been transformed into memes and mockery by the general population. In Spain, the event was also taken to heart by many Spaniards who have openly criticized Mexicans, sometimes with racist comments. Neither of the two states managed to get across a successful response from its people; what was deemed to be a diplomatic rapprochement turned into an internal political strategy of polarization.
Certainly, this is not the first time a government asks or gives an apology to another nation. This diplomatic gesture has approach relationships and a first move to promote the inclusion of segregated minorities along history. In 2015, as part of the historic apology to the Sephardic Jewish community, Spain approved a bill allowing descendants of Sephardic Jews, who were forced to flee the country during the Spanish Inquisition, to acquire Spanish nationality. Also in 2000, German president Johannes Rau offered an apology to Israel for the Holocaust, and so on. There are two main problems with AMLO’s procedure of asking for apologies and equating them to those previously given by Spain or other imperial countries. For one thing, apologies should be offered under previous dialogue, mutual agreement, and a process of meditation on the effects of the colonial offenses. These can only be done unilaterally if it is the colonial power or offender who decides to ask for forgiveness and strengthen the relationship with the affected party; colonial apologies cannot or should not be conducted as a unilateral demand with no diplomatic procedure whatsoever.
Secondly, it seems a bit controversial to be asking for an apology for the treatment of indigenous peoples by Spain when the Mexican government has historically segregated, punished, and ignored them. How can we ask for meditation and public recognition of offenses if we are unwilling to do the same? According to the 2018 Coneval Report, almost 72% of indigenous people in Mexico are in extreme poverty, 3.2 million are unable to acquire the basic food basket, and poverty grew worse for 3.9 million people between 2008 and 2016. Apart from assimilation programs, not much has been done in reparation to our indigenous and rural communities.
The requested apology has been controversial in the national and international communities. The political use of Spain as the aggressor is remarkably strained because it is not a subject of public debate or of Mexico’s foreign policy agenda. Hence, it is clear that López Obrador’s intention is not about making solid historical revisionism; in fact, it is more about a domestic policy strategy benefiting his political cause. This strategy lies in an abusive misuse of history to polarize people and use such polarization for political advantages. Likewise, as once stated by Octavio Paz, the need for expiation and redemption of Mexican society to end the “long exile” and heal an ideological open wound, resides entirely in the Mexican people. An apology from Spain is useless to reconcile the conversed Mexican society, where indigenous people are still ravished and marginalized.
This event is yet another piece of evidence of the inexperience of the new government, the failure of the Mexican Foreign Ministry to address foreign policy, and AMLO’s constant effort to maintain his popularity by centralizing decisions, which often leads to political setbacks.
President Trump’s Threats
As he is accustomed to doing, President AMLO stood in front of hundreds of people during an event in Veracruz, a day after President Trump threatened to close the border with Mexico if actions were not taken regarding the newly formed “migrant caravan” in Central America. “Raise your hands those who think we should answer back to everything Trump says about Mexico. Should I answer back?” he asked.
“No!” they shouted. For AMLO, this was enough to decide not to say anything to the U.S. administration and carry on with its strategy of giving “wisdom to the people.”
The 2020 U.S. elections are getting closer, and President Trump seems to be preparing all the bells and whistles to ensure his reelection. Migration and his narrative on Mexico continue to be some of his key points to win over conservative Americans, induce fear within his population, and ridicule more leftist views and politicians like Rep.Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. Whether President Trump is reelected or loses to the Democrats, the American political context will have a direct impact in Mexico. Nevertheless, the Mexican Foreign Ministry and Mexican Ambassador to the U.S., Martha Bárcena Coqui, has stated the bilateral relationship between Mexico and the United States will continue to be rooted in cooperation and mutual respect.
To a certain extent, President Trump and López Obrador are similar: they are both populist leaders who tend to manipulate their speeches to become more likable among specific groups, and who seem to be campaigning instead of actively working on solutions. They both seem to resent critical media outlets or journalists—President Trump calls them “fake news” and Obrador “prensa fifí”—and they are not always precise in their statements, at most times centralizing political opinions or commitments.
Equally worrying are López Obrador’s responses to President Trump, saying that he understands and respects the position of the American President. How can this be? Aside from apparently giving power to the people to decide on major political issues, AMLO believes that the most prudent and wise decision is to ignore all of President Trump’s declarations and try to maintain a good relationship with our most important economic partner. The fact is that if President Trump decides to close the border with Mexico, the economic, political, and social dynamics in border states will be terribly affected. On one hand, Mexico would lose important economic and commercial partnerships, families would be separated by not being able to freely go back and forth, and border cities would be largely affected. On the other, the U.S. would also suffer without Mexican labor that happens daily in frontier states, Mexican exports would also be limited, and diplomatic relations would be heavily shaken. There is no clear winner in this strategic game of likability.
Historic apologies are useful mechanisms to heal wounds between states (or nations) and freshen up relations. As a strategy, it should not be mocked at or minimized, especially when atrocities have been committed. The cruelty committed to indigenous groups by the Spanish conquest is undeniable. Nevertheless, after 200 years of independence, the Mexican national project lacks a solid strategy for indigenous communities. If President López Obrador’s aim is to reconcile the people, he should work on doing so internally and not only demanding it from abroad. There is a political misuse of history in the sense that there is no revisionism to what has and hasn’t been done. An apology would be welcomed, but it must be done after the offenders acknowledge the past and reflect on their actions, not by a unilateral request.
AMLO’s statements on Spain, and his lack of statements about President Trump, are perhaps aimed at distracting Mexicans from other important topics in the national agenda, such as education reform, revocation of the mandate, budget cut of Ministries, and the unusual meeting with Jared Kushner and Televisa Vice President. Perhaps they are not a distraction at all, but merely a part of his Manichean discourse of always trying to find a binary relation of good and evil, and creating a stronger acceptance among his most loyal, less critical followers.
It is crucial to ask, what has Mexico done for indigenous peoples who are still marginalized in national politics? Before confronting an unapologetic Spain, we should confront ourselves and expect that this administration will make the lives of our indigenous people better. We are certain that a diplomatic apology won’t solve poverty or racism or the lack of opportunities. Like Paz stated, mechanisms to close the gap (economically, politically, and culturally) between Mexican nationals seem slightly more important.
President Donald Trump is facing possible reelection, thus his future actions and discourse will be solely directed to his electorate. We can expect harsher discourse and politics regarding national security and migration. Should Mexico stay passive or take action? There are no clear steps to take. Hence, the Mexican government is not expected to change its position towards the U.S. or demands respect or an apology from the American president. AMLO will remain silent and rely on the “wisdom” of the Mexican people. Meanwhile, people in the North will continue to be scared of losing their jobs and a definitive shutdown.
The “Spain Affair” is not a foreign policy strategy, but a national strategy to achieve López Obrador’s political goals. At 7 am tomorrow, we are convinced a new controversy regarding Mexico’s foreign policy will arise. This is not over yet.
Verónica Lira is an honors graduate with a B.A. in International Relations from Tecnológico de Monterrey, who is currently focusing on gender studies and developing student programs against gender violence.
Luz Paola Garcia graduated with a B.A in International Relations from Tecnológico de Monterrey. She currently works as a political consultant and as writer for Revista Ciudadania.