France hopes to shore up business with Cuba amid US policy shift

News from Cuba | Thursday, 5 March 2015

François Hollande this week announced he will be the first French President to officially visit Cuba

President François Hollande this week announced he will travel to Cuba in May. It will be the first official visit by a French president to the communist-run country, coming on the heels of a historic rapprochement between Washington and Havana.

The Elysée palace said on Tuesday that Hollande would go to Cuba on May 11, after visiting the French Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe.

While the trip to France’s overseas territories will focus on the environment and culture, observers say Hollande’s Cuban stopover is spurred by economic concerns. French officials fear being eclipsed by United States leaders and businessmen forging new economic ties with the island.

“France will continue to stand with the Cuban people as it opens a new chapter in its history,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius declared on December 17, the same day President Barack Obama shocked many by announcing the United States and Cuba would fully restore diplomatic relations more than 50 years after severing ties.

Fabius, who visited Havana in an official capacity in April 2014, added at the time that France and Cuba were already enjoying a new, “dynamic” relationship.

He was the first French foreign minister to visit the largely-isolated nation since 1983, and was accompanied by large delegation of business leaders. Fabius has been among a handful of statesmen pushing for more trade between Europe and Cuba as the Castro regime has started easing its grip on the island’s economy.

Now, with travel restrictions for US citizens largely lifted by Obama’s executive order, and US investors sizing up the country’s energy, telecommunications, and agricultural sectors, France could quickly lose its toehold in the Cuban market.

“The thaw between Havana and Washington set off alarms in December,” French daily Le Monde wrote this week. “European businesses, especially French and Spanish ones, have had a head start on the island thanks to the US embargo. They will soon have to contend with US competition.”

“François Hollande’s visit will therefore be an opportunity to underscore Europe’s newfound willingness to do business, before the predictable landing of the Americans,” the article added.

Le Monde was referring to the so-called EU-Cuba Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement, negotiations aimed at normalizing ties that have also been on ice since 2003.

Cuban and EU representatives were meeting on Wednesday and Thursday in Havana for a third round of talks, which were originally scheduled for December, but were called off only days before Obama’s surprise announcement.

The latest EU-Cuba round is due to tackle the sensitive human rights dossier.

The EU bases its approach to Cuba on a 1996 "common position" document stating that economic cooperation must go hand-in-hand with advances toward a pluralistic democracy and respect for individual liberties.

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