France's Hollande arrives in Cuba for historic visit

Update: May, 11/2015 - 11:48

HAVANA — French President Francois Hollande arrived in Cuba on Sunday for a historic one-day visit where he is expected to meet with his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro, according to a presidential aide.

Hollande is the first French leader to visit the island nation in more than a century and also the first Western leader to travel to Cuba since the surprise announcement in December of a rapprochement between Washington and Havana.

Hollande arrived at Havana's Jose Marti International Airport at 22:50pm (0250 GMT) and was greeted by Cuba's Deputy Foreign Minister Rogelio Sierra.

The visit is aimed at boosting French and European Union interests in Cuba, which has undergone gradual economic and social reforms under Castro.

Castro and Hollande are expected to meet on Monday and the French president's office has said he is available to meet with revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, Raul's brother, though no face-to-face has been confirmed.

Hollande is also the first western leader to visit Cuba since a surprise announcement in December by Havana and Washington that the former foes would seek to normalise relations after over five decades of bad blood.

The aim of the trip "is that France be the first among European nations, and the first among western nations, to be able to say to the Cubans that we will be at their side if they decide themselves to take needed steps toward opening," Hollande told reporters before leaving for Havana.

The French president said the easing of a decades-long economic embargo by the United States will help Cuba's economy.

"Cuba wants to move on to a new phase, a new period, a new time for this island that was victim of an embargo," Hollande said on a stop in Guadeloupe, referring to the US sanctions in place since 1962.

Hollande said removing the embargo was key to opening Cuba up to the rest of the world, adding that despite the move toward thawing relations with Washington, economic barriers remain.

"There are still a lot of measures in place that block trade and business," Hollande said. — AFP