México’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s demand that Spain officially apologize for the Spanish conquest almost 500 years ago is the latest example of his ridiculous obsession with the past. It’s a fixation that can cost México dearly.
Much like late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and his successor Nicolás Maduro, Bolivia’s Evo Morales and other populist Latin American leaders, López Obrador is constantly talking about his country’s independence heroes and other prominent figures of the past.
In his speeches, he solemnly vows to follow the steps of late presidents Benito Juarez (1806-1872), Francisco Madero (1873-1913) and Lazaro Cardenas (1895-1970), the man who nationalized México’s oil industry.
In his daily morning press conferences, he speaks from a podium in front of a banner showing the images of his historical heroes, much like Venezuela’s Chávez used to address his nation in front of a giant portrait of Venezuelan independence hero Simon Bolivar.
By comparison, López Obrador rarely speaks about science, technology, innovation, quality education or other topics of the future, which are key to México’s ability to be competitive in the global economy, grow and reduce poverty.
During a visit to México last week, the whole country was debating López Obrador’s latest demand for “reparations” from Spain on occasion of the 500th anniversary of Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes’ arrival in México. Chávez made a similar request in 2008, and Maduro in 2017.
López Obrador himself turned this into a major political issue when he disclosed in a video that he had sent separate letters on March 1 to Spanish King Felipe VI and Pope Francis asking them to apologize to indigenous Mexicans for “violations of what are now known as human rights” during the conquest.
López Obrador also said that he is appointing a commission of Mexican experts to look into Spain’s atrocities during the conquest. In the video he made public through social media, he was standing next to his wife, Beatriz Gonzalez Muller, who recently wrote a book about the Spanish Conquest.
The Spanish government responded that it “firmly rejects” López Obrador’s demand. Spain is one of México’s biggest sources of foreign investments.
Mexican politicians and intellectuals have since engaged in a bitter dispute over López Obrador’s apology request.
The president’s supporters argue that many countries have apologized for past mistakes, including Germany for the Holocaust and, most recently, France for its atrocities during the Algerian war. López Obrador’s critics counter that it reopens old wounds. They ask, jokingly, if — by the same logic — the Aztecs’ descendants shouldn’t be asked to apologize for the indigenous tribes they massacred before.
What’s most troubling about López Obrador’s regressive spat with Spain is that it eclipses a much more important national debate about its future.
López Obrador’s heroes may have been great men, or at least some of them. But Juarez died before the invention of the telephone, Madero died before the first trans-Atlantic flight and Cardenas died before the birth of the internet. They lived in a different world.
López Obrador should worry about the fact that México produced a pitiful 407 patents of new inventions last year, compared with South Korea’s 90,847, according to the U.N. World Intellectual Property Organization.
Or he should worry about the fact that México’s manufacturing sector may soon face a major crisis, as China’s factories are increasingly using more efficient industrial robots. While China already has 97 industrial robots per 10,000 workers, México has only 36, according to the International Federation of Robotics.
López Obrador’s obsession with history is dangerous, because it diverts the country’s attention and threatens to leave México farther behind in the global economy. México should focus on how to become more competitive in the age of falling oil prices and rising industrial automation, instead of wasting time on worthless conflicts about things that happened 500 years ago.