By Isaac Risco (dpa)
HAVANA TIMES — The president of France, Francois Hollande, met on Monday with Cuban leaders Fidel and Raul Castro as part of a historic visit to the island in which he advocated dialogue and the “opening of Cuba to the world. ”
Hollande, the first visit by a French head of state to the Caribbean island, was also the first leader of a Western power to travel to Cuba after the historic rapprochement between Washington and Havana announced in December.
Before meeting with President Raul Castro, Hollande visited the president’s brother, former President Fidel Castro, at his house on the west side of Havana, confirmed the Elysee Palace in Paris.
“Comrade Fidel expressed gratitude to President Hollande for being the first head of state of France to visit Cuba,” noted Cuban state television when informing of the meeting.
Although removed from power since 2006, and rarely seen in public, Fidel Castro often receives visits by important foreign visitors passing through Havana.
Hollande then met with Raul Castro at the Palace of the Revolution after laying a wreath at the monument to Cuban national hero Jose Marti in the nearby Plaza de la Revolution, according to the Cuban news agency Prensa Latina.
In his first address to a Cuban audience this morning, the French leader called for an end to the US embargo on Cuba and said his country wants to accompany the current opening up of the island.
“You know very well what has always been the position of France with regard to the embargo that hampers the development of Cuba,” Hollande said during a speech at the University of Havana, attended by Cuban first Vice President Miguel Diaz Canel.
“This visit takes place in a context in which it is possible today that Cuba has at last exchanges with the rest of the world,” added the French president who arrived in Havana on Sunday.
“I believe it is very important for Europe to be present” in today’s Cuba, Hollande said regarding the process of economic liberalization in recent years on the island and the thaw with the United States. The governments of Washington and Havana are negotiating the planned reopening of embassies to resume diplomatic relations broken off unilaterally by the US in 1961.
After delivering his lecture at the University of Havana, the French president inaugurated in the city center the new headquarters of the Alliance Francaise cultural institution which has taught French to more than 10,000 students on the island. In the afternoon also also participated in a French-Cuban business forum.
With his visit to Havana, Hollande also seeks to promote the political negotiations between Cuba and the European Union (EU) opened in April last year.
The EU and Havana are currently negotiating a treaty of “political dialogue and cooperation” leading to a rapprochement between the two sides after years of low level bilateral relations. To date the relations between both parties are conditioned by the so-called European “common position” which calls for improvements in the situation of human rights on the island.
The French president traveled to Havana accompanied by senior representatives of French companies. Among them are the spirits producer Pernod Ricard, a partner for years of the Cuban rum Havana Club, Air France, the Accor hotel group and the construction giant Bouygues.
Companies from both countries signed agreements in the fields oil and tourism, according to Prensa Latina. The University of Havana, meanwhile, signed several agreements for academic cooperation and student exchange with French institutions.
Hollande’s delegation also includes the French ministers of Ecology, Justice and Culture and Communication, among other portfolios, besides the President of the National Assembly, Claude Bartolone.
After being in the French West Indies between Friday and Sunday, Hollande closes his five-day Caribbean tour with a visit to Haiti Tuesday.
Coinciding with the visit of Hollande, the Cuban Catholic Church announced today the dates of the visit of Pope Francisco to the island.
The Argentine pontiff will be in Cuba four days from September 19-22. He will visit the cities of Havana, Santiago de Cuba and Holguín before leaving for the United States. The pope will visit the sanctuary of the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre in the same province of Santiago.
Francisco played a key role in the historic rapprochement between Cuba and the United States. He became an intermediary between the two parties during the 18 months of secret negotiations that preceded the announcement of December 17 2014 that Washington and The Havana would resume diplomatic relations.