France's Hollande meets Fidel Castro in Cuba

Praising "strong and free" country, Hollande makes no mention of rights issues that led to freeze in EU ties with Cuba.

    Francois Hollande has become the first French president to visit Cuba since 1898, holding talks with revolutionary leader Fidel Castro in the capital Havana.

    The French leader is using a one-day trip to the island to build business and diplomatic relations, five months after a detente between the Caribbean nation and the US.

    Hollande also on Monday held private talks with President Raul Castro, Fidel's brother.

    NOTES FROM HAVANA

    In his first public speech after arriving in Cuba, French President Francois Hollande addressed the University of Havana saying: "To be in Cuba is to be in a country that in Latin America has represented dignity and independence." He made no allusion to the more than decade-long freeze in ties between Cuba and the EU and no mention of human rights issues that led to that freeze in 2003. "A country with culture is a strong and free country, and we [Cuba and France] want to be increasingly strong and free," he said. This is the first visit by a Western European leader in almost 30 years and, more significantly, the first since the EU froze political and cultural ties with Cuba's government in response to the arrest of 77 dissidents in 2002. France clearly wants to take a leadership role in untying the ideological knot. It believes the EU needs to position itself politically economically ahead when the US eventually lifts the economic embargo against Cuba. Holland is accompanied by executives of Air France, the French hotel chain Accor and the French liquor company Pernod Ricard.

    Lucia Newman, Al Jazeera Latin America editor

    Earlier, Hollande addressed the University of Havana saying, "to be in Cuba is to be in a country that in Latin America has represented dignity and independence".

    He made no allusion to the more than decade-long freeze in ties between Cuba and the European Union and no mention of human rights issues that led to that freeze in 2003.

    "A country with culture is a strong and free country, and we [Cuba and France] want to be increasingly strong and free," he said.

    The visit is the first by a Western European leader in almost 30 years and, more significantly, the first since the EU froze political and cultural ties with Cuba's government in response to the arrest of 77 dissidents in 2002.

    Al Jazeera's Latin America Editor Lucia Newman, reporting from Havana, said France clearly wanted to take a leadership role in "untying the ideological knot".

    "It believes the EU needs to position itself politically and economically ahead of the US when it eventually lifts the economic embargo against Cuba," she said.

    Hollande, who brought along executives from French multinational hotel, airline, supermarket, liquor and telecommunications firms, said France would be a "faithful ally" of Cuba as it re-entered the global economic system.

    The visit follows an announcement in December that the US would start to ease restrictions on Cuba after more than a half-century of hostility, opening opportunities for business.

    The US has already announced it will allow new flights and ferry services to Cuba since a meeting between the US and Cuban presidents in Panama City last month.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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