French President Francois Hollande called on Monday for ending of the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, saying France "will be a faithful ally" as Cuba reforms its centrally planned economy and tries to re-enter the global economic system.
Hollande's one-day trip made him the first French president to visit Cuba since it became an independent country. Along with a large contingent of French executives, he is focused on strengthening business and diplomatic relations five months after the declaration of detente between Havana and Washington.
He visited former President Fidel Castro mid-afternoon on Monday, Ecology Minister Segolene Royal told reporters.
Top diplomats from Japan, the European Union, Italy, the Netherlands and Russia have visited the island in recent months in bids to stake out or maintain ties with an island that suddenly looks like a brighter economic prospect amid warming U.S.-Cuba relations.
Almost all have been accompanied by business people interested in Cuba's push to draw more than $8 billion in new foreign investment as part of a broader, gradual economic liberalization. The delegations are also working to ensure that Cuba doesn't forget its old friends in what eventually could be a new era of increased business with the United States.
Speaking at the University of Havana, Hollande said "France will do everything it can to aid the process of opening Cuba and help get rid of measures that have so seriously damaged Cuba's development."
Hollande's address, in which he announced plans to increase academic exchanges with Cuba and mutually recognize the other country's university degrees, was attended by First Vice-President Miguel Diaz-Canel, the man widely expected to succeed President Raul Castro when he steps down in 2018. Hollande planned to meet Castro later Monday
Hollande also met with Cardinal Jaime Ortega to award him the Legion of Honor, France's highest honor, and inaugurate a new building for the Alliance Francaise cultural center in Cuba.
Shortly afterward, Hollande broke from his official schedule and walked down Cuba's elegant but crumbling Paseo promenade, chatting with passersby and startled French tourists who took photos with him.
Hollande, who is on a tour of the Caribbean, was accompanied by five of his ministers and nearly two dozen French executives, including representatives of Pernod Ricard beverages, hotel company Accor, Air France, supermarket Carrefour and the telecommunications company Orange.
Spain, the Netherlands, Italy and France are Cuba's biggest trading partners within the European Union, which is the island's second-largest economic partner with a combined $4.65 billion a year in trade in food, machinery and other goods.
Source: AP Photo: French President Francois Hollande (R) and Cuban President Raul Castro review an honor guard at the Revolution Palace in Havana on May 11, 2015 (AFP Photo)