HAVANA TIMES — French President Francois Hollande hosted talks today with Cuba’s Raul Castro in a visit that highlights the rapprochement between the two countries, reported dpa news.
“We want to accompany Cuba on the path it has chosen of openness and development,” Hollande said at the Elysee Palace, where he appeared with Castro.
Raul Castro is the Cuban first head of state to visit France since 1995 when his brother Fidel was in Paris. For months, France has been at the forefront of bringing the European Union (EU) closer to Cuba, after years of a chill in bilateral relations.
After his meeting with Raul Castro, Hollande called for the lifting of the US embargo against Cuba.
“This embargo and the blockade should be ended now,” said the French leader. Hollande called on US President Barack Obama, to finish the job after having made “many gestures” toward Cuba since the announcement of the bilateral thaw between the two countries.
Castro, meanwhile, thanked France for assuming “leadership” in improving relations between the EU and his country. “We appreciate the leadership of France at the time of the construction of a new stage in relations between the EU and Cuba,” he said.
The Cuban leader also recognized the role of France in the negotiations with member countries of the Paris Club over Cuba’s debt. Back in December the Paris Club waived the 8.5 billion dollars owed by Cuba in back interest with the condition that it pays off 2.6 billion in loans within 18 months.
“We reiterate our gratitude to the French Government for its significant role and constructive position to achieve this important result, which opens a new stage in the economic, commercial and financial relations for Cuba with these countries,” Castro said.
The agreement with the Paris Club is considered key to enabling Cuba to access credit internationally.
The French Government has recently become the main interlocutor of Havana within the EU even ahead of Spain, the traditional lead role in contacts with Latin American countries.
Eight months ago, Hollande was the first leader of a Western power to visit Cuba after the thaw between Washington and Havana began in December 2014. The trip was also the first ever by a French head of state to the Caribbean island.
Castro’s return visit to France also comes amid the gradual opening of the Island to international investment. For several years now, Cuba has made a timid opening of its market, with incentives to attract foreign capital.
Since April 2014 the EU is negotiating with Cuba to reach an agreement on political dialogue and cooperation, after decades of estrangement due to international criticism of the human rights situation on the island. Several European countries now favor a new policy toward Havana.
Human rights advocates, meanwhile, criticized the gestures of the Hollande government with Havana. The Cuban president “is the representative of one of the last active dictatorships,” said the secretary general of Reporters Without Borders, Christophe Deloire, in an article published by the leftist French daily “Libération”.
In his speech, Hollande said that during his one-hour conversation with Castro “all pending matters” were addressed. He emphasized that France identifies with the “rights of persons”.