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Hollande makes historic Cuba visit

Updated: 2015-05-12 07:43
By Agence France-Presse in Havana (China Daily)

Francois Hollande arrived in Havana on Sunday, the first French president to visit Cuba in more than a century, cementing France's lead in the EU rapprochement with the island.

Hollande is the first Western leader to visit Cuba since a surprise announcement in December by Havana and Washington that the former Cold War foes would move to normalize relations after half a century of bad blood.

Hollande arrived at Havana's Jose Marti International Airport at 10:50 pm local time (10:50 am Monday, China time) to begin the latest leg of a whirlwind five-day tour of the Caribbean. Hollande was greeted by Cuban Deputy Foreign Minister Rogelio Sierra.

"I come to Cuba with great emotion because it is the first time that a president of the French Republic has come to Cuba," he has said on arrival.

No French leader has visited Cuba since the island nation gained independence in 1898.

"There are historic ties, deep ties, between the people of France and the people of Cuba," said Hollande, applauding Cuba's longtime commitment to independence.

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

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 arriving in Havana.

The French president said the easing of a decadeslong economic embargo by the United States will help Cuba's cash-strapped economy.

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

The French leader said removing the embargo was key to opening Cuba up to the rest of the world, adding that despite the move toward thawing relations with Washington, economic barriers remain.

"There are still a lot of measures in place that block trade and business," Hollande said.

Several agreements will be signed during the trip, though the details of the deals were not made public. Hollande said the accords will focus on improved access to Latin American markets.

The French president is due to meet on Monday with his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro, whom he last met with in December 2013 in South Africa at Nelson Mandela's funeral.

Hollande's office has said he is available to meet with revolutionary icon Fidel Castro as well, but Havana has not confirmed that face-to-face talks between the two will take place.

 Hollande makes historic Cuba visit

French President Francois Hollande arrives at Jose Marti Airport in Havana on Sunday. Hollande is the first French leader to visit the island nation in more than a century and also the first Western leader to travel to Cuba since the surprise announcement in December of a rapprochement between Washington and Havana. Dalberto Roque / Agence France-Presse

(China Daily 05/12/2015 page12)

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