France's Hollande calls for end to US embargo on Cuba trip
French President Francois Hollande on Monday called for an end to the US embargo on Cuba, during the first visit by a Western leader to the island since Washington and Havana moved to restore ties.
Addressing the half-century-old trade embargo ahead of meetings with Fidel and Raul Castro, the brothers who have ruled Cuba since its 1959 revolution, Hollande said France will do whatever possible to see that "the measures that have so badly harmed Cuba's development can finally be lifted, repealed."
Hollande said his trip came "at a particularly important but also uncertain time," as the United States seeks to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba and European countries scramble to reinforce ties.
Hollande's Cuba trip, the first by a French leader, has highlighted the simultaneously cooperative and competitive relationship between the United States and the EU as both look to start doing business with Havana.
Asked if US President Barack Obama would follow suit and make his own visit, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said: "I think the president has indicated that he does not envision a trip to Cuba anytime in the near future. But I certainly wouldn't rule it out over the course of next year now."
Since announcing in December that the United States and Cuba would move to renew ties, Obama has used executive authority to relax parts of the embargo, including restrictions on travel and on sending money to the island.
He has urged Congress to lift the full embargo, in place since 1962, but, with both houses controlled by his Republican opponents, he faces an uphill political battle.
Cuba says "the blockade" has cost it more than $100 billion.
A US presidential visit would be seen as a powerful symbol that the long-standing conflict is drawing to a close.
- Call for 'opening' -
Hollande also urged Cuba to open up its economy, saying there was vast interest in doing business with the island.
"I know you are taking important economic decisions to promote the evolution of the Cuban economic model," he told a business forum.
"We are ready to join you, while respecting your identity, your model, your independence.
"But of course, we would like to see your rules relaxed and for our companies to be able to manage their resources more freely. That's not out of self-interest, it's to foster increased investment."
Raul Castro has presided over gradual economic and social reforms since taking over in 2006 from his big brother Fidel, the leader of the revolution that ousted dictator Fulgencio Batista and eventually made Cuba a one-party communist state.
France has joined the Netherlands and Spain leading an EU push to normalize relations with Cuba, suspended in 2003 over a crackdown on journalists and activists.
The European Union opened talks on restoring ties in April 2014 aiming to persuade Havana to improve its rights record.
The historic US-Cuban thaw announced last December has lent new momentum to the process, with Europe keen to position itself politically and economically for when the US embargo is eventually lifted.
Several French-Cuban deals were to be signed during Hollande's trip, though the details were not made public.
Hollande, who is traveling with a delegation of French business leaders, said the accords would focus on improved access to Latin American markets.
- Human rights rift -
The visit follows a meeting Sunday between Raul Castro and Pope Francis at the Vatican, where the Cuban leader thanked the pontiff for his role in brokering the historic detente between Havana and Washington.
The pope will himself visit Cuba from September 19 to 22, traveling to Havana and the eastern cities of Holguin and Santiago de Cuba, said the Church, detailing the itinerary of a previously announced trip.
Hollande, who arrived in Havana late Sunday, said it filled him with "great emotion" to be the first French leader to visit Cuba since it gained independence in 1898.
He took time out Monday to go for an unscheduled stroll along the Prado, one of the capital's oldest avenues.
He later headed to a closed-door meeting with Fidel Castro at the revolutionary leader's home, before talks in the evening with Raul.
Hollande said his conversations would not shy away from the issue of human rights, a lingering source of tension in negotiations to restore EU-Cuban ties.
"I speak of human rights whenever there are political prisoners, every time there are violations of freedom, France does not remain tight-lipped," he said.
© 2015 AFP