Paris, Feb 2 (IANS) Cuban President Raul Castro on Monday paid a historic state visit to France, the first ever by a Cuban leader in two decades, with a view to reinforce bilateral ties, increase trade links, and discuss debt relief.
The two-day visit reflects Cuba’s “friendship and high esteem,” the French president’s office said in a press release, Xinhua reported.
At the Elysee Palace, French President Francois Hollande rolled out the red carpet for the Cuban leader, who is seeking to bolster Havana’s connections with the West after being isolated for decades.
During a one-hour talk, both leaders were to discuss ways to inject dynamism into a bilateral economic partnership via tourism and transport, in addition to development accords.
Besides, they are to sign an agreement to write off $8.5 billion of Cuba’s $11.9-billion debt, to convert it into financing for development projects expected to help Havana quicken its growth.
France’s sales to Cuba totalled 131 million euros ($142.8 million) for January to November 2015, down from 157 million euros in 2014, figures which, according to Mathias Fekl, junior minister in charge of foreign trade and tourism, were “not in line with our ambitions”.
In December 2014, the US and Cuba decided to restore their diplomatic ties, which had been severed for 54 years. The European Union also said, led by France, the Netherlands and Spain, that it was interested in resuming ties with the Caribbean island.
Several months after, Hollande flew to Havana in a move to further bolster relations and open new business opportunities in Cuba and neighbouring Latin American countries.
France’s economic presence in Cuba is mainly in the hotel industry, construction, telecommunications, energy and banking. Some 60 French firms already operate in Cuba, according to official figures.