Raul Castro on historic visit to France

Cuban flag [Goran Gotev]

Cuba’s President Raul Castro began an official state visit to France today (1 February), his first ever to Europe, which is being seen as a key step in rebuilding his island nation’s ties with the West.

The Cuban leader was welcomed under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris before being driven down a virtually deserted Champs-Elysées avenue, decked out in Cuban flags.

Police severely restricted access to spectators, and just a few groups of supporters of the Cuban regime were present.

Castro, 84, is on his first official trip to the European Union since taking over from his elder brother Fidel in 2006, and spent the weekend in the French capital on a private visit.

France has led the way in welcoming Cuba back into the diplomatic fold since it restored relations last year with the United States after they were broken off for more than half a century.

French President François Hollande, who was to hold talks with Castro later Monday, has described the visit as “a new stage in the strengthening of relations between the two countries”.

>>Read: Germany’s Gabriel in Cuba for trade talks

It builds on Hollande’s own state visit to Cuba last May, the first by a head of state from the West in more than half a century.

Castro is the second former pariah to be welcomed to Paris in a matter of days, after Hollande hosted Iranian President Hassan Rouhani last week.

“This visit is important for Cuba’s image,” said Eduardo Perera, an international relations expert at Havana University.

“It will undeniably make Cuba shine on the international stage.”

Havana hopes the visit will allow Cuba to “widen and diversify its relations with France in all possible areas — politics, economics, trade, finance, investment, culture and cooperation,” said Rogelio Sierra, Cuban deputy foreign minister.

Although Washington has yet to lift its trade embargo on Cuba, US and European businesses are jockeying for a place in the market as the island’s economy gradually opens up.

Hollande urged an end to the blockade, which was imposed in 1962, on his Havana visit.

Trade delegations have been flocking to Cuba, hoping to cash in on its highly trained workforce and natural assets such as its sun-drenched Caribbean beaches, a draw for tourists.

Cuba, meanwhile, needs to tap new sources of income as its main ally and financial backer, Venezuela, is mired in economic and political crisis.

Trade between the two countries currently adds up to a modest $195 million (180 million euros), which is “not in line with our ambitions,” France’s Secretary of State for Foreign Trade Matthias Fekl told L’Humanité newspaper.

Debt write-off

The French trip is the first by a Cuban head of state since Fidel Castro visited then-President Francois Mitterrand in 1995.

>>Read: Socialist MEPs visit Cuba, plead for stronger ties

Castro will also attend a state dinner before meeting various French officials on Tuesday (2 February).

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 debt relief, potentially widening Cuba’s access to international financial markets.

France is also taking a leading role in strengthening Cuba’s political ties with Europe as a whole.

Human rights remains a sensitive issue, with international authorities accusing the Castros of repressing and harassing their political opponents.

A diplomatic source in Paris said human rights “will be discussed” during the talks. Hollande faced criticism from rights groups after meeting with Fidel Castro last year.

There were also demonstrations against Rouhani’s visit last week, although Hollande hailed a “new relationship” after sealing a slew of lucrative trade deals drawn up after nuclear sanctions on Iran were lifted.

Since 1996, EU policy towards Cuba has been guided by the so-called Common Position, which rules out full relations with Havana until it makes reforms in areas such as more diverse political participation, and freedom of expression.

The EU suspended talks with Cuba in 2003 after Havana launched a crackdown and jailed 75 dissidents in a direct response to calls for liberalisation and greater respect for human rights.

It was only in 2008 that the EU started lifting some sanctions unilaterally, the year Fidel Castro retired from the presidency permanently and power passed to his younger brother Raul.

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