Cuban President Raul Castro is paying an historic state visit to France, seeking to develop business and tourism ties as the Caribbean island opens up its economy.
The trip comes after a breakthrough deal was reached in Paris in December to lighten Cuba's foreign debt - and days after France hosted the leader of another long-time pariah state: Iran.
Castro, 84, is on his first official trip to Europe since taking over from his elder brother Fidel in 2006. The Cuban president briefly stopped to Rome last year to meet with Pope Francis.
French President Francois Hollande, the longtime former leader of France's Socialist party, greeted Castro on Monday with a warm hug in the courtyard of the Elysee presidential palace in Paris, and then started the meeting saying in French "Vive Cuba!" ("Long live Cuba!").
The two heads of state are expected to give a joint press statement before a state dinner in Castro's honor.
On Tuesday, Castro will meet with French Prime Minister Manuel Valls and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and visit the Musee de l'Homme, a museum focusing on human evolution. The Cuban delegation is also meeting French business leaders and the UNESCO chief.
Hollande was the first French leader to visit Cuba in a half-century, with a trip in May aimed at boosting trade, and the French government was instrumental in securing the debt relief deal.
In December, the Paris Club of creditor countries forgave $8.5 billion of overdue Cuban interest payments in exchange for Cuba's promise to pay off $2.6 billion in loans from developed countries over the next year and a half. France, to which Cuba owed $4 billion in overdue loans, led the creditors' negotiations.
French companies are looking for business opportunities to open up in Cuba, especially in the tourism, transport, food and environmental industries.
Cuba has seen a tourist boom last year in the wake of the normalization of its relations with the U.S. The number of French visiting the country increased 30 percent in 2015 compared to previous years.
A dozen bilateral agreements are expected to be signed during Castro's visit, including one regarding Cuba's remaining debt to France, which amounts to $390 million (360 million euros).
The two countries are also hoping to develop university and scientific exchanges.
Date created : 2016-02-01