HAVANA (AP) — French President Francois Hollande called on Monday for ending of the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, saying France "will be a faithful ally" as Cuba reforms its centrally planned economy and tries to re-enter the global economic system.
Hollande's one-day trip made him the first French president to visit Cuba since it became an independent country.
Along with a large contingent of French executives, he is focused on strengthening business and diplomatic relations five months after the declaration of detente between Havana and Washington.
Hollande met with President Raul Castro during his brief visit to the island.
The French leader said he also met for about 50 minutes with Castro's older brother and revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, who talked about climatic problems, agriculture and sanctions against Cuba. Hollande said during an encounter with French residents in Cuba that Castro looked physically "deteriorated," but that they had "an easy conversation."
Top diplomats from Japan, the European Union, Italy, the Netherlands and Russia have visited the island in recent months in bids to stake out or maintain ties with an island that suddenly looks like a brighter economic prospect amid warming U.S.-Cuba relations.
In Washington on Monday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that President Barack Obama "has indicated that he does not envision a trip to Cuba anytime in the near future. But I certainly wouldn't rule it out over the course of the next year."
Almost all have been accompanied by business people interested in Cuba's push to draw more than $8 billion in new foreign investment as part of a broader, gradual economic liberalization. The delegations are also working to ensure that Cuba doesn't forget its old friends in what eventually could be a new era of increased business with the United States.
Speaking at the University of Havana, Hollande said "France will do everything it can to aid the process of opening Cuba and help get rid of measures that have so seriously damaged Cuba's development."
Hollande's address, in which he announced plans to increase academic exchanges with Cuba and mutually recognize the other country's university degrees, was attended by First Vice-President Miguel Diaz-Canel, the man widely expected to succeed President Raul Castro when he steps down in 2018. Hollande planned to meet Castro later Monday
Hollande also met with Cardinal Jaime Ortega to award him the Legion of Honor, France's highest honor, and inaugurate a new building for the Alliance Francaise cultural center in Cuba.
Shortly afterward, Hollande broke from his official schedule and walked down Cuba's elegant but crumbling Paseo promenade, chatting with passersby and startled French tourists who took photos with him.
Hollande, who is on a tour of the Caribbean, was accompanied by five of his ministers and nearly two dozen French executives, including representatives of Pernod Ricard beverages, hotel company Accor, Air France, supermarket Carrefour and the telecommunications company Orange.
Spain, the Netherlands, Italy and France are Cuba's biggest trading partners within the European Union, which is the island's second-largest economic partner with a combined $4.65 billion a year in trade in food, machinery and other goods.