HAVANA (AP) — King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia of Spain arrived in Cuba on Monday night on the first state visit to the island by a Spanish royal.
The couple disembarked in Havana at the start of a three-day visit to Cuba’s capital and the eastern city of Santiago.
The king and queen will tour historic sites during the week as Havana celebrates the 500th anniversary of its founding, but they will leave before the actual anniversary on Saturday.
The trip has sparked criticism from right-wing politicians in Spain and inspired critical opinion pieces in conservative-leaning newspapers over a trip seen as a step forward for normal relations between Spain and its former colony, a single-party communist state that cracks down harshly on dissent.
The royal couple plan to meet with cultural figures and entrepreneurs but avoid interaction with members of Cuba’s illegal political opposition.
Spanish hotel chains and other tourism-related businesses serve hundreds of thousands of travelers to Cuba each year, and hundreds of thousands of Cubans have claimed Spanish citizenship through laws granting passports to the children and grandchildren of Spanish immigrants.
Felipe’s father, King Juan Carlos, never made a state visit to Cuba during his four decades on the throne following the return of democracy to Spain after the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975. Pressure from conservative political parties nixed any chance of a visit.
Juan Carlos did travel to Havana in 1999 for the Ibero-American Summit. He also returned to the island after he had abdicated in 2014 to attend the funeral of Fidel Castro.
Pablo Casado, the leader of Spain’s conservative Popular Party and opposition leader to Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, has criticized the King Felipe’s trip.
“It doesn’t seem logical (that Sánchez) sends, a day after an election, the king and queen to visit the gerontocratic dictatorship of Cuba,” Casado said.
Associated Press writer Michael Weissenstein reported this story in Havana and AP writer Joseph Wilson reported from Madrid.