France welcomes Cuba’s Castro in historic visit

HAVANA, Feb.1th  Cuba’s Communist President Raul Castro starts his official trip to Paris on Monday, his first-ever state visit to Europe, seen as a key step in rebuilding his island nation’s ties with the West.

The Cuban leader is due to receive a grand welcome by President Francois Hollande under the Arc de Triomphe, decked out in Cuban colours, at the top of the Champs Elysees avenue.

The 84-year-old Castro is on his first official trip to the European Union since taking over from his elder brother Fidel in 2006, and has been in the French capital since Saturday for a private visit. France has led the way in welcoming Cuba back into the diplomatic fold since it restored relations last year with its longtime foe, the United States.

Hollande has described the visit as “a new stage in the strengthening of relations between the two countries”, building on his own state visit to Cuba last May, the first by a Western head of state in more than half a century.

Castro is the second former pariah to be welcomed to Paris in a matter of days, after Hollande hosted Iranian President Hassan Rohani last week. “This visit is important for Cuba’s image,” said Eduardo Perera, an international relations expert at Havana University. “It will undeniably make Cuba shine on the international stage.”

Havana hopes the visit will allow Cuba to “widen and diversify its relations with France in all possible areas — politics, economics, trade, finance, investment, culture and cooperation,” said Rogelio Sierra, Cuban deputy foreign minister.

Although Washington has yet to lift its half-century trade embargo on Cuba, US and European businesses are jockeying for a place in the market as the island’s economy gradually opens up. Hollande urged an end to the blockade, which was imposed in 1962, on his Havana visit.

Trade delegations have been flocking to Cuba, hoping to cash in on its highly trained workforce and natural assets such as its sun-drenched Caribbean beaches, a draw for tourists.

Cuba, meanwhile, needs to tap new sources of income as its main ally and financial backer, Venezuela, is mired in economic and political crisis. Castro is expected to sign an “economic roadmap” with France, according to officials in Paris, as well as deals on transport and tourism.

Trade between the two countries currently adds up to around $195 million (180 million euros), which is “not in line with our ambitions,” France’s minister of state for foreign trade Matthias Fekl told L’Humanite newspaper.

The French trip is the first by a Cuban head of state since Fidel Castro visited then president Francois Mitterrand in 1995. Raul Castro will hold talks with Hollande at the Elysee presidential palace and attend a state dinner before meeting various French officials on Tuesday.

France recently engineered an agreement among the Paris Club of international creditors to write off $8.5 billion of Cuba’s debt. It could now agree to further debt relief, potentially widening Cuba’s access to international financial markets.

Paris is also taking a leading role in strengthening Cuba’s political ties with Europe as a whole. Human rights remains a sensitive issue, with international authorities accusing the Castros of repressing and harassing their political opponents.

A diplomatic source in Paris said human rights “will be discussed” during the bilateral talks. Hollande faced criticism from rights groups after meeting with Fidel Castro last year.

There were also demonstrations against Rohani’s visit last week, though Hollande hailing a “new relationship” after sealing a slew of lucrative trade deals drawn up after nuclear sanctions on Iran were lifted.