By Isaac Risco and Sebastian Kunigkeit
HAVANA TIMES — Cuban President Raul Castro begins this weekend a visit to France considered historic amid the gradual opening of the island’s economy, reports dpa news.
President François Hollande will receive Castro on Monday, with France converted in recent months as the main European interlocutor of Cuba, even ahead of Spain, traditionally in that role in the relations of the EU with Latin American countries.
Cuba “is a country that is opening and we want to be part of that opening,” said a French diplomatic source before the visit.
The French Government will receive Castro, 84, with the highest honors. For days the Cuban flag waves in the iconic Champs Elysees in Paris.
The protocol for the visit to take place officially on Monday and Tuesday includes a banquet at the Elysee Palace. Raul’s older brother, Fidel Castro, was not received with state honors during his last stay in Paris over 20 years ago.
Raul Castro will travel to France today and will spend the weekend on a private visit.
The Government of the younger Castro tries to attract foreign investors to revive its economy, mired in a chronic economic crisis.
Cuba “is called to be a major axis (commercial) in the region and of the continent, including North America,” French Minister of Commerce, Matthias Fekl, told the newspaper “L’Humanite”.
Agreements are expected during the visit in tourism, transport and fair trade, among other fields.
The French Government will also accept to reinvest part of Cuba’s debt of US $4 billion in the financing of economic projects on the island. In December, the Paris Club of creditor nations wrote off a debt to Havana for $8.5 billion dollars in back interest in exchange for payment within 18 months of $2.6 billion in loans in arrears.
Several French owned multinationals, such as the Accor hotel group and Air France have operated for years in Cuba. The alcoholic beverage maker, Pernod Ricard, has for some time distributed Havana Club, one of the most famous Cuban brands.
In macroeconomic figures, however, the island is a junior partner of France, the sixth largest economy in the world and third in Europe. In the first half of 2015, France exported only 83 million euros (89 million dollars) in products to Cuba.
Paris justifies it’s new approach to Cuba for political reasons, saying that a good relationship with Havana improves the French position in Latin America.
In May, 2015, President Hollande became the first head of state of a Western power to visit Cuba, a few months after the beginning of the historic thaw between the island and the United States.
“I believe it is very important for Europe to be present,” said the French leader on the Cuban opening. During his visit, Hollande avoided criticizing the human rights situation on the island, something usually expected from European leaders when traveling to Havana.
Parisian diplomatic sources said the issue of human rights, however, was discussed in the talks between the two heads of state. They stressed that France wants to work for a dialogue with Cuba to push more changes on the island.
For years France has supported a lifting of the US embargo on the island. It also supports the rapprochement between Washington and Havana, as well as negotiations begun in April 2014 between the EU and the island to reach a political dialogue agreement.
The Cuban government says nearly half a million citizens are now working in the emerging private sector as part of market reforms in recent years. The government also tries to attract foreign capital by granting of tax advantages. Nonetheless, the Communist Party has ruled out reforms to its single-party political system.