MADRID – Spain's king will fly to South America on Sunday for his first major trip since falling and breaking a hip on an elephant hunt seven weeks ago.
King Juan Carlos will arrive in Brazil and then go to Chile on Monday. He will be accompanied by several business leaders increase trade ties with Spain and reinforce commercial links with Latin America.
Spain often relies on the king as a high profile representative overseas, and the 74-year-old monarch will no doubt be eager to recover some of the respect he lost when it became known he had been on an elephant hunting safari as his country struggled with a deep financial crisis and crushing unemployment.
Many Spaniards were dumbfounded when news broke that the king had made a secret journey to hunt elephants in Botswana even though he is honorary president of the Spanish branch of the World Wildlife Fund.
Such an opulent indulgence at a time when everyday Spaniards were braving a 24 percent unemployment rate and a shrinking economy, and fears the country could be the next after Greece, Ireland and Portugal to need a bailout caused stinging criticism of the monarch.
The Spanish public only learned of the safari when the king had to fly back to receive emergency medical attention for his broken hip. Faced with the incredulity that was reflected in the media, Juan Carlos made an unprecedented act of royal contrition: he apologized. "I am very sorry. I made a mistake. It won't happen again," he said as he left hospital looking sheepish and trying to placate a rare wave of outrage against him.
It was a poignant moment because the royal family had been under intense media scrutiny, for all the wrong reasons, and the embarrassment visible in the king's face only added to its woes.
The king's son-in-law, Inaki Urdangarin, is a suspect in a corruption case, accused of having used his position to embezzle several million euros in public contracts through a supposedly not-for-profit foundation he set up.
Then, over Easter, the king's 13-year-old grandson Felipe Juan Froilan shot himself in the foot with a shotgun, even though by law in Spain you must be 14 to handle a gun.
This four-day trip to Latin America marks the king's return to normal duty and follows his first public appearance after surgery as head of state when he reviewed troops at Spain's annual armed forces day Saturday.
"See if you could have withstood it," he joked with the media about standing to attention for 45 minutes after recovering from complex hip replacement surgery.