Spanish royals visit Havana for 500th anniversary celebrations

Carlos BATISTA, Katell ABIVEN
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King Felipe VI of Spain and Queen Letizia arrive at Havana's Jose Marti International Airport on November 11, 2019

Spain's King Felipe VI begins an unprecedented visit to Cuba on Tuesday to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the capital Havana at a time of increased tensions between the island nation and the United States.

King Felipe is traveling alongside Queen Letizia in the first state visit by a Spanish monarch to the former colony, one of the last to gain independence from Madrid in 1898.

The capital -- a magnet for millions of tourists every year -- is celebrating the anniversary of its foundation on November 16, 1519.

However, the wider political context is anything but festive as relations with the United States have soured considerably since President Donald Trump replaced Barack Obama almost three years ago.

Washington accuses Cuba of oppressing its people and providing military support to Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro, thus helping thwart a US bid to force out the socialist leader in favor of parliament speaker Juan Guaido.

Last month Washington announced the suspension of all flights from the US to Cuba except to Havana as the Trump administration continues to roll back the improved ties instigated by Obama.

Cuba has increasingly turned towards traditional allies Russia and Venezuela for support, but also the European Union.

"Faced with the harassment of Cuba by the Trump administration, the royal couple's journey to the island can be interpreted as a support to economic, political, cultural relations and cooperation between Cuba and Spain," said Raynier Pellon, an expert at the center for international political research in Havana.

- 'A Clear Message' -

For Cuban researcher Arturo Lopez-Levy from the Holy Names University in the US, it's "a clear message to the White House."

Cuba's third largest economic partner -- after China and Venezuela -- with $1.39 billion in 2018, Spain has not shied away from criticizing Trump's policies.

Foreign minister Josep Borrell, who is accompanying the royal couple, blasted the Trump administration in May for an "abuse of power" after Washington gave the green light a month earlier for Cuban exiles to use US courts to sue private companies and the Cuban government over properties nationalized after the 1959 revolution.

King Felipe will meet Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel during his visit and join Havana's official historian Eusebio Leal for a tour of its fabled cobblestone streets.

The king will bring a self-portrait by Francisco Goya, on loan for a month by Madrid's Prado Museum, to be displayed in Havana's Museum of Fine Arts.

However, he and Letizia will leave the island before the official celebrations begin on Friday and Saturday, when several other Latin American leaders will attend.

"The clear reason," according to Carlos Malamud, a researcher from the Elcano institute in Madrid, "is the government's desire to avoid awkward contact with Daniel Ortega and Nicolas Maduro."

The left-wing presidents of Nicaragua and Venezuela -- widely criticized by the European Union for oppressing their own people -- have not yet confirmed their attendance.