Cuba announces France oil deal as Hollande urges end to US trade embargo

Cuba's President Raul Castro (R) receives his French counterpart Francois Hollande at the Revolution Palace in Havana May 11, 2015.      REUTERS/ADALBERTO ROQUE/POOL

Cuba’s President Raul Castro (R) receives his French counterpart Francois Hollande at the Revolution Palace in Havana May 11, 2015. REUTERS/ADALBERTO ROQUE/POOl

HAVANA, May 12  Cuba has announced an oil exploration deal with France in the Gulf of Mexico after the French president, François Hollande, made a historic visit to Cuba in which he called on the United States to end its trade embargo on the Communist-run country.

French oil major Total signed an agreement on Monday to explore for offshore oil with Cuban state oil monopoly CubaPetroleo (Cupet). Cuban state-run television reported the exploration agreement without giving further details.

On Monday Hollande said France “will be a faithful ally” to Cuba as the country reforms its centrally planned economy and tries to re-enter the global economic system.

Hollande’s one-day trip to Cuba on Monday made him the first French president to visit the country since it became independent.

Along with a large contingent of French executives, he focused on strengthening business and diplomatic relations five months after the declaration of detente between Havana and Washington.

Hollande met with President Raúl Castro during his brief visit to the island.

The French leader said he also met for about 50 minutes with Castro’s older brother, the revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, who talked about climatic problems, agriculture and sanctions against Cuba. Hollande said during an encounter with French residents in Cuba that Castro looked physically “deteriorated” but that they had “an easy conversation”.

Top diplomats from Japan, the European Union, Italy, the Netherlands and Russia have visited the island in recent months in bids to stake out or maintain ties with an island that suddenly looks like a brighter economic prospect amid warming US-Cuba relations.

Almost all have been accompanied by business people interested in Cuba’s push to draw more than $8bn in new foreign investment as part of a broader, gradual economic liberalization. The delegations are also working to ensure that Cuba doesn’t forget its old friends in what eventually could be a new era of increased business with the US.

In Washington on Monday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that President Barack Obama “has indicated that he does not envision a trip to Cuba anytime in the near future. But I certainly wouldn’t rule it out over the course of the next year”.

Speaking at the University of Havana, Hollande said: “France will do everything it can to aid the process of opening Cuba and help get rid of measures that have so seriously damaged Cuba’s development.”

Hollande’s address, in which he announced plans to increase academic exchanges with Cuba and mutually recognize the other country’s university degrees, was attended by First Vice-President Miguel Díaz-Canel, the man widely expected to succeed Raúl Castro when he steps down in 2018.

Hollande also met with Cardinal Jaime Ortega to award him the Legion of Honor, France’s highest honor, and inaugurate a new building for the Alliance Française cultural center in Cuba.

Shortly afterward, Hollande broke from his official schedule and walked down Cuba’s elegant but crumbling Paseo promenade, chatting with passersby and startling French tourists who took photos with him.

Hollande, who is on a tour of the Caribbean, was accompanied by five of his ministers and nearly two dozen French executives, including representatives of Pernod Ricard beverages, hotel company Accor, Air France, supermarket Carrefour and the telecommunications company Orange.

Spain, the Netherlands, Italy and France are Cuba’s biggest trading partners within the European Union, which is the island’s second-largest economic partner with a combined $4.65bn a year in trade in food, machinery and other goods.

A dozen foreign firms have explored in Cuba’s deep waters over the years, sinking four wells but finding no oil.

Total has explored close to shore, drilling two wells in the early 1990s. They came up dry and Total left in 1995.

For over a decade, Cuba has asserted its exclusive economic zone off the north-west coast holds more than 20bn barrels of undiscovered crude.

Last week Cuba unveiled new data it said confirmed there were billions of barrels of oil beneath its Gulf of Mexico waters.

The US geological survey has estimated the region holds 5bn to 7bn barrels.

Venezuelan state oil firm PDVSA and Russia’s state-run Zarubezhneft still retain exploration rights, according to Roberto Suarez Sotolongo, Cupet’s co-director.

Cuba hopes the discovery of oil offshore will free it from dependence on other countries, such as socialist ally Venezuela.