French foreign minister on historic visit to Cuba

HAVANA (Reuters) – France’s foreign minister arrived in Cuba yesterday for a brief but historic visit, the first by such a high-ranking French official in 31 years and a sign of the quickening pace of improving ties between the European Union and Havana.

Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius met with his Cuban counterpart Bruno Rodriguez upon arrival, and was scheduled to meet with Cardinal Jaime Ortega and then French businessmen.

Rodriguez met with Laurent in Paris last month.

“We want to strengthen our ties with South America and particularly with Cuba,” Fabius said, before sitting down for talks with Rodriguez.

Both men pointed to the long history of friendly relations and cooperation between the two countries.

“Our bilateral relations are developing in a favorable way today and there are great possibilities for the future,” Rodriguez said.

A French diplomat said Fabius would discuss with Rodriguez the beginning of a political dialogue that would include human rights, and business opportunities provided by economic reforms on the island.No agreements were expected to be signed.

Since Fabius took office in 2012 he has tried to shift more of France’s diplomatic focus toward winning contracts in markets where French firms are traditionally weak, as Paris looks to find growth opportunities overseas.

France is looking to expand its business ties with Latin America and sees Cuba as an important player in the region, given that it hosted a regional summit this year and both Brazil and Mexico are increasing their presence in the country. Fabius was scheduled to return to France yesterday evening, having been in Mexico before stopping in Havana.

Bilateral trade last year was $388 million (280 million euros), according to the French government, mainly wheat exports to the communist-run Caribbean island.

Construction and engineering firm Bouygues, beverage maker Pernod-Ricard, the Accor tourism corporation and energy company Total, all have investments in Cuba and are among 60 French firms operating in the country.

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