France's Hollande gives high honor to Cuban Church leader
French President Francois Hollande on Monday bestowed his nation's highest honor on the head of the Catholic Church in Cuba, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, a key figure in the communist island's growing rapprochement with the West.
In a ceremony at the start of a landmark visit to Cuba, the first by a Western leader since Washington and Havana moved to restore ties after more than half a century, Hollande praised "all the cardinal has done for and with this country" in presenting him with the Legion of Honor.
"You have dedicated your life (to Cuba) as a man of the Church. You have worked to calm tensions, to find solutions. It wasn't always easy. You continue to stand for the opening of Cuba," he said.
Ortega, 78, has emerged as a key interlocutor with the Cuban government, in a country where there is no legal political opposition.
He was involved in Pope Francis's key discussions to facilitate the detente between the United States and Cuba, announced last December.
In 2010, he held direct talks with Cuban President Raul Castro that led to the release of some 130 political prisoners.
Hollande's visit to Cuba is the first ever by a French president.
The European Union is also engaged in talks to restore ties with Cuba, suspended in 2003 over a crackdown on journalists and activists.
© 2015 AFP