France, Paris: Yesterday, Cuba’s President Raul Castro began an official state visit to France, 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-Elysees avenue, decked out in Cuban flags.
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. French President Francois 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”. 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. Cuban deputy foreign minister Rogelio Sierra said, “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”.
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, which is “not in line with our ambitions”, France’s minister of state for foreign trade Matthias Fekl told L’Humanite newspaper.