HAVANA – Spain’s King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia began the second day of their state visit to Cuba by going to the site where Havana was founded, three days before the 500th anniversary of the founding of the city by Spanish colonists.
Together with the head of the Havana Historian’s Office and, for decades, the person in charge of the rehabilitation of the city’s architectural heritage, Eusebio Leal, the royal couple returned to Havana’s historic old section after their stroll through several streets there on Tuesday.
The Cuban capital’s old district was declared a World Heritage Site in 1982.
Felipe, once again wearing a traditional Cuban guayabera – this time a white one – and the queen, wearing a dress of the same color, began their tour at the Templete, the spot in 1519 where the first town council and founding Mass were held next to a kapok tree.
According to tradition, hundreds of people every Nov. 16 gather at the small building built in 1828 in the neoclassical by Fernando VII to make three circuits around the tree, toss coins into the air and make a wish.
The royals did not participate in that particular ritual but in the shade of the tree – not the original, which survived until 1753 – they listened attentively to Leal’s explanation about the symbolism of the site.
Also present were Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell, the head of the Cuban National Assembly, Esteban Lazo, and Havana Mayor Reinaldo Garcia Zapata.
Along with the accompanying officials and personnel, Felipe, carrying the official city baton, and Letizia toured the park on the Plaza de Armas, established in 1520, making it the most ancient of the four plazas in the colonial style in Havana’s old district, and where the statue of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, the “Father of Cuba” and its first president, stands.
The royals also visited the Palace of the Captains General, the old seat of the Spanish governors of Cuba, where a number of Spanish artifacts are housed.
In addition, the king and queen are scheduled to return Wednesday evening to the Palace of the Captains General to host a dinner for Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel at which Felipe will deliver a wide-ranging speech.
Meanwhile, the king on Wednesday expressed his full support for the work being undertaken by Spanish businesspeople with interests in Cuba in the face of the “current difficulties” and adverse conditions they have to navigate, although he did not specify what those were.
The royal couple visited Havana’s Grand Theater to offer a reception for Spanish residents of the island, and there the king delivered his first public remarks on this state visit, emphasizing the “living presence of Spain in Cuba,” calling the island nation a “sister and friend,” as well as a “welcoming” nation where Spain has deep “roots,” given that 140,000 Spaniards living there.
He also noted that Spain is Cuba’s main European Union trade partner, contributing one half of the EU’s total exports to Cuba along with being the main tourism investor for the island, where “more than 70 Spanish hotels” currently operate, hosting thousands of tourist each year.