Despite being a colony for almost four centuries and the last to gain independence, Cuba never received the official state visit from a Spanish monarch. That changed Monday with the arrival of King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia in Havana to attend the celebrations for the 500th anniversary of the city’s foundation.
The Cuban government wanted to impress the royals so much that it ordered the sacrifice of stray dogs that are a common sight throughout the city.
King Juan Carlos went to Cuba twice but not on an official visit. The four-day trip of his son, the Spanish monarch Felipe, will serve “to highlight and strengthen historical ties and bilateral relations between the two countries,” the royal house said in a statement.
But before Felipe could set foot on the island, the royal visit has been surrounded by controversy.
On Monday, a group of animal-rights activists protested in Havana against the government’s plans to “clean up” the city and sacrifice dozens of stray dogs, which they blamed on the celebrations for the anniversary of Havana’s foundation and the royal visit. Although activists managed to rescue some dogs on Monday, many had already been slaughtered with “cruel” methods, including poisoning with strychnine.
The idea of the king and queen traveling to the island — amid increased repression against dissidents and tensions with the United States for Cuba’s support of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela — has also been a source of criticism inside and outside Spain.
Dozens of Cuban activists and exiles protested against the royal visit in front of the Spanish consulate in Miami on Sunday, and another demonstration is planned for Wednesday.
Dissident Eliécer Ávila asked the king not to support “the dictatorship at this time” by going to Cuba and “advocating for the freedom of all political prisoners,” including the leader of the opposition group Patriotic Union of Cuba, or UNPACU, José Daniel Ferrer, whom the government held incommunicado for a month.
Relatives of Ferrer and members of UNPACU asked the monarchs in an open letter to intercede for the dissident’s release. They also said they are worried that Cubans may see the king’s visit as a sign of approval of the island’s “single-party communist regime.”
Candidates from several Spanish right and center parties used similar language to attack the country’s head of government, Pedro Sanchez, during a televised debate before Sunday’s parliamentary elections. The leader of the Popular Party, Pablo Casado, lamented that Sanchez sent the monarchs to meet with “the dictatorial gerontocracy of Cuba.”
According to the Spanish media, the royal house could not prevent the trip despite voicing concerns. Spain’s constitution states that the king’s actions are the responsibility of the president of the government, who dictates the state travel agenda. In this case, Sanchez had accepted the invitation for a royal visit during a trip to Cuba in November last year.
For Spain, the anniversary of the founding of Havana marks an excellent opportunity to “pay tribute to the Spanish presence on the island,” acting Foreign Minister Josep Borrell told the COPE radio station. It’s also about claiming the more than 150,000 Cubans who are Spanish citizens and supporting Spanish entrepreneurs on the island, a diplomatic source told el Nuevo Herald.
Spanish companies in Cuba are going through a difficult time. The Cuban government is behind in payments, a situation that affects mainly small and medium Spanish companies. But it is unlikely that the king could get more from the Cuban government than the vague promises of payment Sánchez got on his trip.
Lawsuits in U.S. courts now threaten large Spanish chains such as Meliá and Iberostar for operating hotels on properties that were confiscated by the Fidel Castro government.
Critics of the PSOE government in Spain and members of the Cuban opposition have asked for Felipe to meet with dissidents. Still, the agenda of the visit, promoted as a cultural one, only includes meetings with intellectuals and other Cuban personalities.
“This is a state trip with cultural content,” said Juan Fernández Trigo, Spanish ambassador in Havana to the EFE news agency. “Our idea is not to come to do politics, because the king does not do politics in Spain.”
Perhaps to avoid another political controversy, the monarchs will not attend the official celebrations for the foundation of Havana on Nov. 16, which will prevent a dreaded photo with Maduro and Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega, who are expected to attend the event.
The visit, officially starting on Tuesday, includes a private gala dinner with the Cuban leader Miguel Díaz-Canel. The monarchs will host another dinner at the Palace of the Captain Generals, the residence of the Spanish governors during the colonial era, where Felipe is expected to deliver a speech. The king will also meet with business people and members of the Spanish community on the island, among other events.
Before returning to Spain, Felipe and Letizia will travel to Santiago de Cuba on Thursday to pay tribute to the Spaniards who died during a naval battle that sealed the fate of the Spanish-Cuban-American war in the late 19th century.