Hollande meets with Fidel Castro during historic visit to Cuba
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French President François Hollande met with retired Cuban leader Fidel Castro and his brother and current president, Raul Castro, on Monday during a historic visit to the communist island.
“I had before me a man who made history. There is a debate on what could be his place, his responsibilities. But coming to Cuba, I wanted to meet Fidel Castro,” Hollande told reporters before attending an official welcoming ceremony. He also met with Raul Castro, who took over when his brother retired in 2008 due to poor health.
Hollande is the first French president to visit Cuba in more than a century, and is also the first Western head of state to make the trip since Havana and Washington announced in December plans to normalise relations for the first time in more than half a century.
“[Hollande] wanted this visit to be as significant and symbolic as possible, and this indeed did happen since he visited both Fidel and Raul Castro,” FRANCE 24’s special correspondent James André reported from Cuba’s capital Havana.
“He was received by the former leader and father of the revolution [Fidel Castro] at his private residence with his wife and two of his children ... Then he went on to visit Raul Castro, the current head of state, and there were discussions of human rights, the situation of the island, the opening of the island. This was one of the main issues of this visit … to position France centre-stage as far as business and contracts are concerned.”
The French president also called for the United States to lift its trade embargo on Cuba during his visit to the island.
“Anything France can do to make sure ... the opening is confirmed, so that the measures that have so harmed the development of Cuba can be rescinded, so that the identity of each country is respected, this is what has to be done,” Hollande said in an exchange with students at Havana University.
Hollande landed in Cuba on Sunday as part of a tour of the Antillean islands. Prior to his arrival, he said that 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 towards opening up".
"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.
France leads EU rapprochement
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.
But French officials say they recognise the importance of the EU positioning itself politically and economically for when the US embargo is eventually lifted.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)