Latin America & Caribbean

France's Hollande meets Fidel and Raul Castro in Havana

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Media captionThe BBC's Will Grant reports on Hollande's historic visit to Cuba

French President Francois Hollande has met Cuba's 1959 revolutionary leaders Fidel and Raul Castro on a historic trip to Havana.

Mr Hollande also called for an end to the decades-long US trade embargo against Cuba.

He said the embargo badly damaged development of the island.

Mr Hollande is the first French president to visit Cuba since 1898, and the first Western European leader on the island since the 1980s.

President Hollande and Fidel Castro spoke for an hour, according to Liberation journalist Laure Bretton who tweeted his comments (in French) after the meeting.

"I had in front of me a man who had made history," Mr Hollande told her.

He later met Fidel's brother and current President Raul Castro.

Speaking earlier on Monday at the University of Havana, Mr Hollande said France would do its utmost to ensure that "the measures which have so badly harmed Cuba's development can finally be repealed".

He was referring to the US trade embargo, which remains in place, although relations between the US and Cuba have improved in recent months.

The diplomatic thaw between Cuba and the US was announced in December.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Mr Hollande visited Paseo del Prado in the Cuban capital
Image copyright AP
Image caption The French president addressed an audience at the University of Havana

Mr Hollande announced plans to double the number of scholarships to enable Cuban students to continue their studies in France, as part of attempts to increase academic and scientific co-operation between the two nations.

The president's first appointment on Monday morning was to bestow France's highest award, the Legion of Honour, on the head of the Catholic Church in Cuba, Cardinal Jaime Ortega.

The Cuban Catholic Church has acted as a mediator between dissidents and the Communist government.

Image copyright AP

'Great emotion'

The BBC's Will Grant in Havana says that unlike some other European countries, France has long maintained reasonably good relations with Cuba and wants to benefit from the new economic openness.

After landing at Havana airport, Mr Hollande said the visit was a moment of "great emotion".

Before arriving, he told reporters that France sought to "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 up".

Mr Hollande later travelled to Haiti.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Fidel Castro is 88 years old and rarely seen in public

A number of high-ranking US and European politicians have visited Cuba since 17 December, when the US and Cuba announced they would move towards re-establishing diplomatic ties.

They include New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, EU Foreign Policy chief Federica Mogherini and top diplomats from Japan and Russia.

But Mr Hollande is the first Western European leader in Cuba since Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzales in 1986.

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