Pope Francis apologized to the people of Mexico, and conservatives in Spain are furious

While Indigenous people in the northern part of this continent await an apology from Pope Francis for abuse suffered in church-run residential schools (next steps to come after a series of conversations in Rome in December), the Pope apologized to the people of Mexico for the violence committed by Spanish conquerors during the colonization and evangelization of the Americas.

In March 2019, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador had written to King Felipe of Spain and Pope Francis, urging them to apologise for the “abuses” of colonialism and the conquest. (This year, Mexico has been marking the 500th anniversary of the fall of the Mexica capital, Tenochtitlán, to the conquistadores, and the 200th anniversary of Mexico’s independence from Spain.)

The apology by Pope Francis to the people of Mexico came in response to the letter from López Obrador. While it was made public Sept. 27 by the Mexican bishops conference, it was dated Sept. 16 and issued from Basilica of St. John Lateran—the cathedral church of the bishop of Rome.

In 1511, Diego Colón, governor of the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo, was furious when a young priest denounced land-owners and colonial authorities for their treatment of the Taíno Indigenous people. Contemporary Spanish politicians (among them Isabel Díaz Ayuso and José María Aznar) were similarly angered by Pope Francis’s recent apology to the people of Mexico.

The apology, received calmly in Mexico, set off a furor among conservative politicians in Spain. 

José María Aznar, a former president of the Spanish government, made a series of racist jokes about López Obrador during a meeting in Seville of his Partido Popular. Another prominent PP politician, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, head of the Madrid regional government, told a U.S. audience that Spain had brought to Latin America nothing but “freedom, prosperity, peace, understanding.” Spain’s socialist government had earlier dismissed the call for an apology, saying “the arrival of the Spanish on Mexican soil 500 years ago cannot be judged in the light of contemporary considerations.”

The Spanish reactions brought to mind the fury of Diego Colon, son of Christopher Columbus and governor of the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo when, in December 1511, a young priest denounced the crimes of the land-owners and colonial authorities against the Taíno Indigenous nation.

A large statue of Antonio de Montesinos delivering his sermon faces the Caribbean Sea in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. The stone and bronze statue is 15 metres tall and was designed by Mexican sculptor Antonio Castellanos. It was donated to the Dominican people by the Mexican government and inaugurated in 1982 by the presidents of Mexico and the Dominican Republic. Photo: Jim Hodgson
A Robert Lentz icon of Bartolomé de Las Casas adorns the cover of Gustavo Gutiérrez’s biography.

Leaders of the Dominican religious order in Santo Domingo had chosen Antón Montesino (more commonly referred to now as Antonio de Montesinos), to deliver a message to land-owners and the colonial authorities. By then, the leaders of the Taíno people had already been killed. Tens of thousands more died from famine and disease. 

Drawing from gospel descriptions of St. John the Baptist (John 1:19b-28), Montesino spoke: 

“I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness. In order to make your sins known to you I have mounted this pulpit, I who am the voice of Christ crying in the desert of this island… Tell me, by what right or justice do you hold these Indians in such cruel and horrible slavery? By what right do you wage such detestable wars on these people who lived mildly and peacefully in their own lands, where you have consumed infinite numbers of them with unheard of murders and desolations? Why do you so greatly oppress and fatigue them, not giving them enough to eat or caring for them when they fall ill from excessive labours, so that they die or rather are slain by you, so that you may extract and acquire gold every day?… Are you not bound to love them as you love yourselves?” 

The young priest’s words sparked immediate anger. In the congregation that day was Diego Colón, the island’s governor and son of Christopher Columbus. Montesino could barely complete the celebration of Mass. Later in the day, Colón led a delegation to a meeting with the Dominican superior, Pedro de Córdoba, who told him the sermon was the responsibility of the entire community. 

A week later, on Dec. 28, Montesino preached again on the same themes. This time, Colón and others sent their protests to King Ferdinand V in Madrid. Over subsequent years, priests were recalled, studies were carried out, promises were made and broken—and the Taíno people continued to die. Worse, the colonial enterprise, based on slavery and ruthless exploitation, expanded throughout the hemisphere. By the time Hernán Cortés headed for Mexico and new genocides in 1519, between 80 and 90 per cent of the Taíno population on Hispaniola had died, and the pattern was being repeated in Cuba and Puerto Rico. 

Also present for Montesino’s homilies was a young priest who was also a land-owner, Bartolomé de Las Casas. As became his practice over the next 55 years, he wrote everything down. 

The Montesino sermon was a turning point for Las Casas. He came to see that Jesus Christ was being crucified again in the slaughter of the Indigenous people. He joined the Dominicans and dedicated his life to challenging the church and the Spanish empire of his day. In 1543, he was named bishop of Chiapas, but only spent about six months there before opposition from colonial land-owners forced him to carry his struggle to defend the Indigenous people to Rome and Madrid. 

Much of what we know about the impact of the colonialism on the original peoples of the Americas in the 16th century is from what he wrote in his History of the Indies, published in 1561. In his long life, he was able to correct errors: among them, failure to denounce slavery, particularly that of Africans. He later advocated that all slavery be abolished.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first publication in Spanish of Gustavo Gutiérrez’s A Theology of Liberation, the book that opened the door to subsequent decades of writing theology from the context—the ways people practice their faith in their real lives. 

In Las Casas, Gutiérrez found a model leader and writer who bore faithful witness to the struggles of his time. Gutiérrez wrote a lively biography: Las Casas: In Search of the Poor of Jesus Christ (Orbis, 1993).

Finding hope in Canada’s election, the UN General Assembly and CELAC

The concurrence this week of a federal election in Canada with the spurt of diplomatic action around the United Nations General Assembly reminds me that I value political debate, and that the world needs urgent action on multiple, related issues.

What we have in Canada is what Marta Harnecker and others have called “polyarchy”—the alternation of power among elites, or the choice from among the elites of whom we wish to govern us for the next few years. And no: we should not be satisfied with that, but rather build toward a system that ensures that everyone can have a meaningful sense of participation in the social, economic and political decisions that most affect their lives. That means having societies and governments that are strong enough to control the worst excesses of capitalism and flexible enough to embrace diversity.

Monday night, Sept. 20 – Liberal minority government projected.

But, in Canada for the moment, we have what we have. Perhaps the most optimistic view is that some sort of new coalition among Liberals, the NDP and the Greens will be strong enough to achieve solid measures to limit climate change, advance justice for Indigenous peoples, promote a global recovery from the pandemic, and quick action on housing and child care.

Meanwhile, at the United Nations, world leaders appeared at the General Assembly podium or via video link. Some emphasized the UN Charter, with its affirmations of national sovereignty and self-determination, and (rightly) criticized the sanctions applied by powerful states against the more vulnerable. Others promised new action to try to enforce their version of a rules-based international order (that is: the corporate-led, neo-liberal one).

Again, amidst the contradictions, one has to look for signs of hope. U.S. President Joe Biden, beset by divisions in his own party and fallout from his border patrol’s gross mistreatment of Haitian asylum-seekers, promised “relentless diplomacy” (an improvement, I hope, from “endless war”).

Biden held two online summits: one to try to advance action on climate goals, and the other to advance action on Covid vaccines—including the urgent need for a waiver that would allow more widespread manufacture of vaccines. Biden promised a new contribution of 500 million doses to the global effort, raising the U.S. commitment to 1.1 billion doses. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who joined Biden’s pandemic summit, promised in the Liberal election platform that Canada will donate “at least” 200 million doses of vaccine through COVAX, the UN vaccine-sharing program, by the end of next year. Critics say the contributions are insufficient.

Participants in the CELAC summit, Palacio Nacional, Mexico City, Sept. 18.

Monroísmo vs Bolivarianismo

A few days earlier, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador convened leaders of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) for a summit in Mexico City, in part, at least to strengthen the forum as a counter-weight to the U.S.-dominated Organization of American States (OAS).

Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro proposed replacing the “Monroe Doctrine” (promoted by the early 19th century U.S. President James Monroe—”America for the Americans,” meaning the United States and reflected today in the actions of the OAS) with a “Bolivarian Doctrine” that would uphold both the unity and the autonomy of the peoples of Latin American and the Caribbean, with CELAC as a space for common action.

Brazil and Colombia (led by the region’s two most conservative presidents) stayed away, but others either came or sent representatives. There were flare-ups over different approaches to human rights protection and economic policy, but in the end, the leaders issued a common declaration and called for an end to the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

Érika Mouynes (left), Panamá’s foreign minister, noted that she was just one of three women at the CELAC table. Claude Joseph (right), Haiti’s foreign minister, met outside the meeting with Mexico’s immigration service to express concern for Haitian migrants in Mexico.

When elites see their wealth threatened, they move heaven and earth

On Nov. 11, 1979, San Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero preached on Mark 12:38-44, The Widow’s Offering: Jesus watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” 

Colombia’s president sends more troops to Cali to try to quell a month of protests. The British magazine The Economist invites a resurgence of U.S. imperialism to thwart the Mexican president’s option for the poor. The six-decade-long U.S. blockade of Cuba is so severe that the country cannot obtain sufficient syringes to protect its population with the vaccines it has developed.

And I think of the words of St. Oscar Romero on Nov. 11, 1979, when he offered a warning about money when it becomes an idol:

It’s natural that when the right feels that their economic privileges are being threatened, they will move heaven and earth in order to maintain their idol of wealth.

Next Sunday, June 6, Mexicans and Peruvians head to the polls. In Mexico, these mid-term elections—the national legislature and many state and local races—are marred by violence: at least 35 candidates of various parties have been murdered. In Peru, it’s the second round of voting to elect a new president: from the left, Pedro Castillo stands a reasonable chance of defeating Keiko Fujimori, despite her powerful, rich supporters.

The Economist’s attack on Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known by his initials as AMLO) in startling. There are reasonable grounds to debate this policy (the pandemic response) or that development plan (the tourist train in the Yucatán peninsula that is opposed by Indigenous people in the region), but The Economist argues that he is a populist comparable to Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, and that democracy is threatened:

Mr. López Obrador divides Mexicans into two groups: “the people”, by which he means those who support him; and the elite, whom he denounces, often by name, as crooks and traitors who are to blame for all Mexico’s problems. He says he is building a more authentic democracy. 

Left: Cartoon by Israel Vargas, The Economist, May 27, 2021. Right: cartoon by El Fisgón, La Jornada, May 29, 2021. (“The Economist: The magazine of the True Oligarchy.”)

It then goes further, suggesting that the United States get involved in Mexico’s internal affairs:

The United States needs to pay attention. Donald Trump did not care about Mexican democracy. President Joe Biden should make clear that he does. He must be tactful: Mexicans are understandably allergic to being pushed around by their big neighbour. But America ought not to turn a blind eye to creeping authoritarianism in its backyard. As well as sending vaccines, unconditionally, Mr. Biden should send quiet warnings.

So, what is a populist anyway? 

A Venezuelan friend who lives in Costa Rica, José Amesty, says populism is a term used by elites when they do not understand what is going on. I would refine that slightly and suggest that it is a term used by elites and technocrats to describe political movements that reject their narrow economic priorities—maintaining their own privileges—by putting social goals first. 

Amesty cites AMLO: “supporting the poor, supporting elderly adults, supporting youth: if that is to be populist, then add me to the list.” AMLO stands in the tradition of Lázaro Cárdenas, the revolutionary Mexican president who in the 1930s led a land reform that put half of the farming land in the hands of local community councils (ejidos) and who nationalized the petroleum industry.

Populism is one of the least useful terms in our political lexicon. I think we’re clearer when we use tags that are generally understood: left (social democrat, socialist, communist), centre (liberal), or right (conservative, traditional, elitist, militarist). Better yet: actually describe the content of political platforms. What does this candidate stand for? With whom do they stand? 

The government of Iván Duque in Colombia and the candidacy of Fujimori in Peru are projections of traditional elites trying to hold on to their power and economic privileges against diverse social and political movements that would empower people who have usually been locked out of power: the rural and urban poor, Indigenous and descendants of Africans, women and LGBTI people. 

In that sense, democracy in Latin America is not so much being threatened as it is still being invented.