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HAVANA (Reuters) - A replica of the 19th century slave ship Amistad, made famous in a Stephen Spielberg movie, sailed into Havana Bay on Thursday with U.S. and Cuba flags flying side by side in a hopeful display of friendship.
The double-masted, black-hulled schooner arrived at a stormy time in U.S.-Cuba relations, but it cruised through smooth waters before tying up at a pier opposite Old Havana, the Cuban capital's historic center.
The U.S.-built Amistad arrived on the International Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Slavery as part of UNESCO's Slave Route Project to remind the world of the consequences of slavery and to promote cultural exchanges.
The original Amistad set sail from Havana with captives from Sierra Leone in 1839 en route to Haiti. The Africans killed the captain and took over the ship but ended up at Long Island in New York.
They were sold as slaves before abolitionists took up their cause, paving the way for their freedom in 1841.
Spielberg made a 1997 film -- "Amistad" -- about the saga.
The ship takes its name from the Spanish word for "friendship," and its crew members said that was the point of the visit.
"The significance of this vessel is to dramatically illustrate the common bonds in culture and history that bring all nations together, whether it is West Africa, United States or Cuba," said Quentin Snediker, who led the design and construction of the ship 10 years ago.
Its arrival coincided with a negative turn in U.S.-Cuba relations, which warmed for a while after U.S. President Barack Obama took office last year and said he wanted a "new beginning" with the Communist-led island.
But on Wednesday, Obama denounced Cuba for the recent death of dissident hunger striker Orlando Zapata Tamayo and its sometimes rough treatment last week of the dissident group Ladies in White during protest marches.
He said the events showed that "Cuban authorities continue to respond to the aspirations of the Cuban people with a clenched fist."
Cuba has not responded to his remarks.
Obama's statement followed the December detention in Havana of a U.S. contractor accused by Cuba of involvement in espionage. The contractor, Alan Gross, remains in jail but has not yet been officially charged with a crime.
The United States has said he was in Cuba to help set up Internet services for Jewish groups and it demanded his release.
Editing by Jeff Franks and Paul Simao