Pope caught up in dispute over Spanish colonial legacy

Conservatives angry at calls for apology over Mexican conquest

A dispute over the nature of Spain's colonial legacy has triggered a war of words between the country's conservatives and the Mexican government, and seen the Vatican also get caught in the crossfire.

The spat coincides with recent celebrations to mark the 200th anniversary of Mexico's independence from Spain. Last week, Pope Francis sent a missive to top Mexican clergy acknowledging the "personal and social sins" committed by the Catholic Church during the evangelisation of the country following its conquest by Spain.

This was not the first time Pope Francis, who is Argentinian, has made such comments about Latin America. However, his words drew a sharp response from the president of the Madrid region, the conservative Isabel Díaz Ayuso, who said that Spain had taken its language, “Catholicism and, therefore, civilisation and freedom to the American continent”.

The polemic intensified, however, when Spain’s former prime minister, José María Aznar, weighed in.


“I am willing to feel proud [of the conquest], but I’m not going to say sorry,” Aznar said during a round table discussion during the national convention of the conservative Popular Party (PP), when asked about the pope’s words.

He also attacked Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the leftist Mexican president who has championed indigenous rights. Aznar made fun of his name, pointing to its clearly Spanish, rather than indigenous, roots, drawing applause from those attending the event in Seville.

“If certain things hadn’t happened, you [López Obrador] wouldn’t be there, you wouldn’t even have your name, you wouldn’t even have been christened,” said Aznar, who was prime minister between 1996 and 2004, of the conquest. “The evangelisation of America wouldn’t have been possible.”

Several others in the PP, including party leader, Pablo Casado, have echoed Aznar's sentiments.

August of this year marked the 500th anniversary of the Spanish conquistadors' successful siege of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the vast Aztec empire and the site of modern-day Mexico City. It was a key early moment in Spain's eventual conquest of most of Latin America, in which European technology and immunity to disease played a crucial role.

While Spain maintains a close cultural and economic relationship with its former colonies, many in Latin America believe the country has never fully acknowledged the scale of the slaughters and other human rights abuses committed by the conquistadors.

Indigenous peoples

In 2019, López Obrador asked Spain’s King Felipe to apologise for the violent aspects of his country’s colonial legacy, something the monarch has not so far done.

And the Mexican leader’s leftist Movement for National Regeneration (Morena) party has responded to Aznar’s recent comments by accusing the Spaniard of “denying the indigenous genocide in our continent” and of “openly offending the history of our country and the dignity and memory of the indigenous peoples of Mexico and the world.”

In its statement, Morena also made reference to the links between Aznar's PP and the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, as well as describing the former Spanish prime minister, who supported the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, as "a warmonger".

In addition, López Obrador’s party underlined the pope’s recent apology and applauded efforts by Spain in recent years to offer nationality to descendants of Sephardic Jews who were expelled from the country in the 15th century. Around 15,000 Jews gained Spanish nationality between the beginning of the initiative, in 2015, and the end of 2020, most of them from Latin America.

Meanwhile, another potential flashpoint for conflicting views about history will come on October 12th, Spain’s national day, which marks the arrival of Christopher Columbus in America in 1492.

Left-wing Peruvian-Spanish writer Gabriela Wiener said the continued use of the date as a Spanish fiesta was in bad taste.

“It’s like the German state celebrating the beginning of the extermination of the Jews as its national holiday,” she wrote.