Cuba's Raul Castro on grand bridge-building France trip
Cuba's Communist President Raul Castro will be welcomed under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris during a rare state visit Monday to showcase his island's warming ties with big world powers.
Having restored relations last year with the United States, the 84-year-old leader now pays court to France, one of his most powerful European allies, in a new era of economic and diplomatic ties.
"This visit is important for Cuba's image," said Eduardo Perera, an expert in international relations specializing in Europe at Havana University.
"It will undeniably make Cuba shine on the international stage."
Although Washington has yet to lift its half-century trade embargo against Cuba, US and European businesses are jockeying for a place in the market as the island's economy gradually opens up.
Trade delegations have been flocking to Cuba, hoping to cash in on its highly trained workforce and native assets such as its sunny Caribbean tourist beaches.
Cuba, meanwhile, needs to tap new sources of income as its main ally among its neighbors, Venezuela, is in an economic and political crisis.
During Castro's visit, France and Cuba are expected to sign an "economic roadmap" to develop ties, French officials said.
They will also sign deals on transport, tourism and fair trade.
Bilateral trade between France and Cuba is currently worth about $195 million.
That level is "not in line with our ambitions," France's foreign trade minister Matthias Fekl was quoted as saying in French newspaper L'Humanite.
- Castros in the Elysee -
It is Castro's first state visit to Europe since he took over from his elder brother Fidel as leader in 2006. The latter visited France in 1995 and met with its then president Francois Mitterrand.
Raul Castro will be officially received on Monday by French President Francois Hollande under the Arc de Triomphe in central Paris, according to French officials.
The Champs Elysees avenue will be decked with Cuban flags.
He will hold talks with Hollande in the Elysee presidential palace and attend a state dinner. He will meet various French officials on Tuesday.
Hollande in May became the first Western leader to visit Cuba following the announcement of the historic rapprochement with the United States.
He called for the lifting of the trade embargo, in place since 1962.
France recently engineered an agreement among the Paris Club of international creditors to write off $8.5 billion of Cuba's debt.
It could now agree to further, bilateral debt relief, potentially widening Cuba's access to international financial markets.
Paris is also taking a leading role in strengthening Cuba's political ties with Europe overall.
It hopes for a new cooperation deal after years of tension over the sensitive issue of human rights in Cuba.
International authorities have accused the Castros of repressing and harassing their political opponents. The government is sensitive about being lectured on the topic.
A diplomatic source in Paris said human rights "will be discussed" during the bilateral talks. Hollande is expected to take a discreet stance on the issue, however.
Hollande this week hosted Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, another head of state from a country whose leaders are accused of human rights abuses.
Hailing a "new relationship," Hollande and Rouhani sealed a sheaf of big trade deals drawn up since nuclear sanctions on Iran were lifted.
In Cuba, Hollande himself drew criticism on human rights grounds for meeting with Fidel Castro during his visit last year.
© 2016 AFP