French president Hollande heads to Cuba on historic visit
Francois Hollande was due in Havana late Sunday, the first French president to visit Cuba in more than a century, cementing Paris's lead in the EU rapprochement with the communist island.
Hollande is also the first western leader to visit Cuba since a surprise announcement in December by Havana and Washington that the former foes would seek to normalize relations after over five decades of bad blood.
The aim of the trip "is that France be the first among European nations, and the first among western nations, to be able to say to the Cubans that we will be at their side if they decide themselves to take needed steps toward opening," Hollande told reporters before leaving for Havana.
The French president said the easing of a decades-long economic embargo by the United States will help Cuba's cash-strapped economy.
"Cuba wants to move on to a new phase, a new period, a new time for this island that was victim of an embargo," Hollande said on a stop in Guadeloupe, referring to the US sanctions in place since 1962.
Hollande said removing the embargo was key to opening Cuba up to the rest of the world, adding that despite the move toward thawing relations with Washington, economic barriers remain.
"There are still a lot of measures in place that block trade and business," Hollande said.
The French president is due to meet with his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro on Monday and his office has said he is available to meet with revolutionary icon Fidel Castro as well.
However, Havana has not confirmed that a meeting between Hollande and Fidel Castro will take place.
- Row over rights -
The European Union suspended relations with Cuba in 2003 over a crackdown on journalists and activists, but it opened talks to restore ties in April 2014, aiming to persuade Havana to improve its rights record.
It was under the French presidency of the EU in 2008 that political dialogue was first resumed between Brussels and Havana.
France, which has made its relations with Latin America and the Caribbean a foreign policy priority, has along with the Netherlands been a strong supporter of the normalization of ties between Cuba and the 28-member European bloc.
"France has always been a leader in the European Union. The fact that the French president is coming shows France's very important role in the dialogue between Cuba and the European Union," Eduardo Perera from the University of Havana told AFP.
© 2015 AFP