French President Francois Hollande arrived in Cuba late on Sunday for a one-day visit during which he is expected to meet Cuban President Raul Castro, although the meeting is yet to be confirmed. The visit to the communist nation -- the first by a French leader in over a century -- comes just a day after his trip to the French overseas region of Guadeloupe and ahead of his visit to Haiti on Tuesday.
Hollande would also reportedly seek to boost bilateral trade with Cuba, which stands at $388 million. Currently, about 60 French firms have business ties with Cuba, including those that operate through joint ventures with Cuban entities.
Hollande’s trip to Cuba makes him the first Western head of state to visit the country since the announcement of a thaw in relations between the United States and Cuba in December. “France would be the first country in Europe and among Western nations to be able to tell Cubans that we are on their side if they themselves decide to take the necessary steps,” Hollande said late on Sunday, according to local media reports.
The European Union had suspended relations with Cuba in 2003. However, France, along with the Netherlands, has been a vociferous campaigner for normalization of ties between Cuba and the 28-member bloc.
France’s attempts at normalizing ties with Cuba began much before the announcement of a breakthrough in relations between the U.S. and Cuba. Nine months before the “historic deal” was confirmed, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius made a brief stopover in Cuba in April when he met his Cuban counterpart Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla. A month after his visit, France signed an accord with the Island nation in order to increase opportunities for French companies seeking to export to Cuba.
“France wants to strengthen its ties with Latin America and, in this context, we wanted relations to be strengthened in particular with Cuba,” Fabius reportedly said at the time of his visit.