France's Hollande arrives in Cuba for historic visit

France's Hollande arrives in Cuba for historic visit
French President Francois Hollande addresses the media after arriving at the Jose Marti international airport in Havana.

HAVANA - French President Francois Hollande arrived in Cuba late Sunday for a historic one-day visit where he is expected to meet with his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro, according to a presidential aide.

Hollande is the first French leader to visit the communist island nation in more than a century and also the first Western leader to travel to Cuba since the surprise announcement in December of a rapprochement between Washington and Havana.

Hollande arrived at Havana's Jose Marti International Airport at 22:50 pm (0250 GMT) and was greeted by Cuba's Deputy Foreign Minister Rogelio Sierra.

The visit is aimed at boosting French and European Union interests in Cuba, which has undergone gradual economic and social reforms under Castro.

Castro and Hollande are expected to meet Monday and the French president's office has said he is available to meet with communist revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, Raul's brother, though no face-to-face has been confirmed.

Hollande's visit is the first time a Western leader has travelled to Cuba since December, when Washington and Havana made a surprise announcement that they would move towards thawing relations after more than five decades of Cold-War animosity.

The EU suspended relations with Cuba in 2003 over a crackdown on journalists and activists, but it began talks to restore them in April last year, aiming to persuade Havana to improve its rights record.

Europe's rapprochement with Cuba actually began nine months before the December announcement, and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius made a brief stopover to Cuba in 2014, the first visit to the island by France's top diplomat in three decades.

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