France-Cuba trade set to accelerate in 2012 -Paris

HAVANA (Reuters) – French-Cuban trade should  take off next year, rising more than 66 percent to 250 million  euros ($334 million) from 2011, the European nation’s trade  minister said on Friday, following a political rapprochement.

European Union nations have explored improved relations with  Cuba after the Caribbean island nation of 11 million people  started releasing political prisoners to resolve one of its  biggest problems with the international community.

French Trade Minister Pierre Lellouche – the first French  ministerial-level official to visit Cuba in nine years – asked  the Communist-led government to allow a chamber of commerce to  further deepen ties between the two nations.

“The laws don’t allow it … I need a chamber of commerce,”  he said in Havana, where he met Cuban ministers for trade,  tourism and energy, among others.

He said France would like to sign joint ventures with Cuba  for agriculture projects.
French officials said Paris exports mainly food stuffs such  as cereals, and industrial goods to the country while Cuban  exports to France are minimal.

Cuba racked up a $3.9 billion total trade surplus last year  as President Raul Castro’s efforts to cut imports and earn more  abroad bore fruit for a second consecutive year, the  government’s statistics office reported.

The country has been battling severe financial problems  since 2008, when hurricanes, the global economic crisis and  internal inefficiencies left it without funds to pay bills.

Castro is pushing through a range of reforms in an attempt  to strengthen the struggling Soviet-style economy by encouraging  more private initiative and reducing the role and size of the  state in some sectors.

Paris and Havana re-established political dialogue earlier  this year after years of a slow rapprochement between Cuba and  Europe following the arrest of 75 dissidents in Cuba in 2003.

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