Hollande becomes first French president to visit Cuba

 havana-live-hollande-havanaHAVANA,May 11  (Reuters) – French President Francois Hollande is making the first visit to Cuba by a French head of state on Monday, attempting to carve out a larger role  at the time of Cuba’s historic opening with the United States.

Hollande was scheduled to meet Cuban President Raul Castro, deliver a speech and participate in an economic forum in Cuba as part of his swing through the Caribbean.

Hollande previously visited Saint-Barthelemy, Saint Martin, Martinique and Guadaloupe and after leaving Cuba was scheduled to go to Haiti on Tuesday.

The French president is traveling with executives from French companies including Air France , hotelier Accor and distiller Pernod Ricard . Each of those three already operates in Cuba but they want to expand their business here with an eye to the potential end of the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba.

Castro and U.S. President Barack Obama announced in December they would restore diplomatic ties and seek to normalize overall relations after more than 50 years of confrontation, and the two leaders followed that with a meeting at a regional summit in Panama in April.

France has always maintained relations with Cuba and is one the largest holders of Cuban debt, but the renewed opening with the United States is expected to have ramifications throughout the West.

European companies that have long done business in Cuba could have a new competitor if the United States ends the embargo. Obama, a Democrat, has asked Congress to remove it but has encountered resistance from Republicans, who control both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Hollande will also meet Cuba’s Roman Catholic cardinal, Jaime Ortega, and the Cuban chapter of the Alliance Francaise, which promotes French culture abroad.

He could also visit retired Cuban leader Fidel Castro, 88, whose 1959 revolution is generally well regarded in France, especially within Hollande’s Socialist Party.

Fidel Castro stepped down provisionally in 2006 and definitively in 2008, handing power to his younger brother Raul.

No French president had visited Cuba before Hollande landed on Sunday night, not even Francois Mitterand, a Socialist who governed from 1981 to 1995. His widow, Danielle Mitterand, is a longtime friend of Fidel Castro.

(Editing by Daniel Trotta and Eric Walsh)