Q. – Cuban President Raúl Castro will be paying an official visit to France on 1 and 2 February. He will have a meeting on Monday with his counterpart, François Hollande, who visited the great island in May 2015. The two countries describe their relations as excellent. Why wasn’t this perceptible before?
THE MINISTER – I don’t see things that way. There’s a long-standing relationship between our two countries. Victor Hugo took a stand for Cuba’s independence by writing magnificent letters to mothers and partners of pro-independence fighters.
More recently, in the 1990s – at a time when Cuba was facing the loss of its trading partners with the end of the USSR and the Cold War and the continuation of the embargo – France was one of the few countries to stand alongside Cuba. We made strong statements but we also took action, opening a Coface [export credit insurance agency] guarantee for French exports. This enabled us to maintain economic relations between our two countries. And it’s never faltered. We have relations at economic but also cultural level. There are intellectuals and artists who today embody these very strong cultural links between our two countries: Wendy Guerra, Raúl Paz and Leonardo Padura, to mention but a few. (…)
Q. – Isn’t the deepening of relations between Paris and Havana also linked to the restoration of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States in December 2014 and the opening-up of the Cuban economy, which needs foreign investment, thus raising questions within Cuban society? (…)
THE MINISTER – Cuba is today engaged in a drive to modernize its economy which is being called an “updating” of its economic model, with several important aspects like the foreign investment law, monetary unification plans and emblematic projects such as the Special Development Zone in the port of Mariel. It’s set to become a very important hub for the region and part of the continent, including North America.
French businesses are present in that project. The other point is the diversification of economic partners, to avoid reverting to dependence on a neighbour or a single country. At the end of the 19th century, José Martí [the Cuban independence leader] said in an American magazine: “It is necessary to balance trade in order to guarantee liberty.” Along with my Cuban counterpart, Rodrigo Malmierca, and with the [French] President’s agreement, we organized an economic forum during his visit in May 2015 with the idea of providing Cuba with what might be advantageous to it in the French system. The country would like to give more scope for individual initiative – that already exists in catering, in particular – and at the same time maintain public interest objectives in the economy. The French delegation to Cuba represented sectors of the social and solidarity economy, the mutualist sector and cooperatives. The social and solidarity economy is a model that can contribute a lot to Cuba in its current phase. (…)
Q. – What’s the volume of trade between the two countries, and in which sectors?
THE MINISTER – Our trade doesn’t yet match our ambitions: €180 million in 2014, including €157 million for exports – mainly wheat and agrifoods – and the volume for 2015 should be similar, but France has a strong presence in Cuba and our two countries have relations in many areas. In tourism, we’re active in the building and use of hotel infrastructure, with Bouygues and Accor, the energy sector with Total, and agriculture with, for example, Malongo. There are cooperation projects in the biotechnology field. There’s obviously Pernod Ricard, which is one of the most emblematic success stories. The cultural relations between our two countries are very wide-ranging, with the French Film Festival, which is a great cultural event. The President has also expressed the wish for a France-themed spring in Cuba. From this year, there will be major events focusing on cinema, music, fashion etc. There is also a strong relationship in terms of language. The Cuban authorities have made available to France the magnificent Palacio Gómez in the heart of old Havana, which is where the Alliance française is based. Every year, 12,000 people learn French there. All this shows how close our ties are. On various visits, particularly the President’s, many business delegations have presented their expertise and the French know-how which can respond to Cuba’s needs, as part of the modernization of the economy under way in the country. (…)
Q. – In Cuba, President Hollande talked about the thorny issue of debt. Where do things stand on this? (…)
THE MINISTER – The negotiations had been at a standstill for more than 20 years. On my visit to Cuba in March 2015, I was accompanied by Bruno Bézard, Director-General of the French Trésor [government department in charge of public finance], who works on multilateral and bilateral debt issues. The issue of debt is very important because the success of Cuba’s ongoing modernization and its access to finance are dependent on it. In the space of a few weeks, we reached an agreement on the sums. The debt comprises $2.6 billion outstanding, which will be repaid in full, and $8.5 billion in late-payment interest, which has been cancelled. This agreement, which we worked hard to get, is going to allow the French Development Agency to return to Cuba. (…)
Q. – During his visit to Cuba, President Hollande stated that the aim of his visit was also to bring about a change in the European Union’s common position on Cuba. What’s the situation with this?
THE MINISTER – In the framework of the EU, there’s a dialogue with Cuba on all issues. The common position belongs to the past and will officially cease to exist when we’re in a position to announce the conclusion of the EU-Cuba agreement. Our analyses on freedoms and human rights differ, and we’re maintaining a rigorous dialogue. (…)
Q. – Are France and Cuba talking to each other as equals? (…)
THE MINISTER – Of course. We have areas on which two sovereign states have chosen to cooperate. Moreover, Victor Hugo said: “Cuba has come of age, Cuba belongs only to Cuba”./.