It has been reported that the newly installed President of Mexico, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, has called on King Felipe VI of Spain and Pope Francis to apologize for the treatment of the native peoples of Mexico during and after its conquest in the 16th century. The proposal has already been rejected by the Spanish Government.
President Obrador is often viewed as a populist, and this demand certainly has the hallmarks of a publicity stunt. In a country ravaged by drugs cartels and corruption, which Obrador was elected, like all Mexican presidents, to oppose, it is very convenient to fix national attention on the crimes of five centuries ago, committed by institutions today represented by people thousands of miles away.
This is not to suggest that there were no wrongs committed by Spanish Catholics during the period of the Conquest, or that the right of the Spanish crown to conquer the area in the first place is straightforwardly correct. These are complex issues.
But demanding apologies does little to clarify these issues or to promote reconciliation. If they have any impact at all, such gestures tend to reinforce one stereotype at the expense of another, when a more nuanced view is necessary for a just historical appraisal. Part of that appraisal would be an acknowledgment that Europeans did not import the institution of slavery into some kind of ideal, peaceful community, but found in central America a society characterized by slavery, exploitation, and human sacrifice on an industrial scale. Another would be that at key historical junctures the Church, and indeed the Spanish crown, worked to improve the lot of enslaved peoples, even at the risk of provoking civil war with slave-owners.