By Sarah Marsh and Nelson Acosta
HAVANA (Reuters) – Spain’s King Felipe will kick off the first ever state visit by a Spanish monarch to Cuba on Tuesday by laying flowers at the monument in Havana to Jose Marti, a symbol of the former colony’s struggle for independence.
Felipe and his wife, Queen Letizia, arrived late on Monday for a three day stay in Cuba, underscoring the rapprochement between the two countries in spite of U.S. attempts to isolate the Cuban Communist government.
Felipe will hold talks in the Palace of the Revolution on Tuesday morning, according to an itinerary released by the Cuban government, while his wife tours Old Havana, founded by a Spanish conquistador in 1519.
The royal visit was timed so the couple could take part in the celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the founding of the Cuban capital. Havana was once one of the most important cities in the Spanish empire, providing a port for its treasure fleet.
Some Spanish politicians and Cuban dissidents have criticized the trip, saying it legitimates the one party system at a time of increased repression. Yet many locals are grateful for what they see as a sign of support for the Cuban people.
“Spain remains our parent nation and we identify a lot with it, so their visit is very important to us,” said Havana resident Maria Pazos, whose paternal great-grandparents came from Catalonia. “It’s also a reaffirmation that we are not alone, that we have support.”
In Havana, various Spanish provinces have associations which lay on social events and dance classes, reflecting the enduring strength of cultural ties, partly due to family bonds. The father of revolutionary leader Fidel Castro himself was a Spanish immigrant.
Economic relations, meanwhile, have picked up since Cuba started opening up its state-run economy in the 1990s. Spain is now Cuba’s third-largest trading partner and one of its top investors.
“It’s an act of historic justice,” said Xulio Fontecha, the head of the association of Spanish companies, the only foreign business group in Cuba. “The king and queen should have come before.”
Felipe’s father King Juan Carlos had traveled to Cuba twice to attend an Ibero-American summit in 2016 and Castro’s funeral, but he never made an official state visit to the island.
Cuba’s dissidents have lambasted visiting European dignitaries for not meeting with Cuban opposition leaders recently, saying this makes the government feel there are no repercussions to cracking down on political opponents.
“It legitimates a regime, a dictatorship that has been in power for 60 years,” said Zaqueo Báez, an activist with the country’s largest dissident group, the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), whose leader has been detained for more than a month.
Juan Fernández Trigo, Spanish ambassador in Cuba, told Spain’s EFE news agency the visit’s content was primarily cultural.
“Our idea is not to come to do politics, because the king does not do politics in Spain,” he said.
(Reporting by Sarah Marsh and Nelson Acosta. Editing by Lincoln Feast.)