Hollande arrives in Cuba for landmark visit

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French President Francois Hollande gestures while speaking during a media conference after a G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia on Friday, Sept. 6, 2013. World leaders discussed Syria's civil war at the summit but looked no closer to agreeing on international military intervention to stop it. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

François Hollande arrived in Cuba’s capital Havana late on Sunday, the first French president to visit the island in more than a century, for a trip aimed at promoting French and European interests in the country.

Hollande is also the first Western head of state to visit Cuba since a surprise announcement in December by Havana and Washington that the two countries would seek to normalise relations for the first time in over 50 years.

Hollande arrived at Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport at 22:50 (0250 GMT) and was greeted by Cuba’s Deputy Foreign Minister Rogelio Sierra.

The visit is aimed at boosting French and European Union interests in Cuba, which has undergone gradual economic and social reforms under its current President Raul Castro.

“As you can imagine, this is a quite an opportunity for French diplomacy, and also for the Cubans, because… this visit could trigger a series of other visits from other heads of state to Cuba in the weeks and months to come, and that of course will have a very positive impact for the opening of the island to the rest of the world,” FRANCE 24’s special correspondent James André reported from Havana. “The idea for the French in being first is to use this to create a special relationship between both countries.”

France is seeking to “be the first among European nations, and the first among Western nations, to be able to say to the Cubans that we will be at their side if they decide themselves to take needed steps toward opening up,” Hollande told reporters before leaving for Havana.

“Cuba wants to move on to a new phase, a new period, a new time for this island that was victim of an embargo,” he said on a stop in Guadeloupe, referring to the US sanctions in place since 1962.

The French president added that lifting the embargo altogether was crucial to opening Cuba to the rest of the world, stressing that economic barriers remain despite the thaw in relations with the US.

“There are still a lot of measures in place that block trade and business,” he said.

Hollande is due to hold talks with Raul Castro on Monday, while the French presidency has said that he is also available to sit down with the country’s former leader Fidel Castro. But Cuba has yet to confirm if the meeting will take place.

“The big question right now is to know if François Hollande will meet Fidel Castro. He said he was available to do so, but for the moment, the Cubans have not yet replied,” André said.

The visit follows a meeting earlier on Sunday between Raul Castro and Pope Francis at the Vatican, where the Cuban leader thanked the pontiff for his role in brokering the historic détente between Havana and Washington.

France leads EU rapprochement with Cuba

The European Union suspended relations with Cuba in 2003 over a crackdown on journalists and activists, but it opened talks to restore ties in April 2014, aiming to persuade Havana to improve its rights record.

It was under the French presidency of the EU in 2008 that political dialogue was first resumed between Brussels and Havana.

“France has always been a leader in the European Union. The fact that the French president is coming shows France’s very important role in the dialogue between Cuba and the European Union,” Eduardo Perera from the University of Havana told AFP.

France, which has made its relations with Latin America and the Caribbean a foreign policy priority, has been a strong supporter of the normalisation of ties between Cuba and the EU.

Europe’s rapprochement with Cuba began before the December announcement on Cuba-US relations.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius made a brief stopover to Cuba in April 2014, the first visit to the island by France’s top diplomat in three decades.

Trade between France and Cuba is modest, worth around $388 million a year, with the balance solidly in France’s favour.

French officials recognise the importance of the EU positioning itself politically and economically for when the US embargo is eventually lifted.

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