President recalls France’s strong friendship with Cuba
Cuba – Toast given by M. François Hollande, President of the Republic, on the occasion of the state dinner hosted in honour of Mr Raúl Castro, President of the Council of State and the Council of Ministers of Cuba
Paris, 1 February 2016
All of you here are friends of Cuba and wanted to join President Raúl Castro and me to recall the strong friendship between our two countries.
I’m pleased to welcome the Cuban Head of State and his large delegation. It’s the first state visit by a Cuban leader since our diplomatic relations were established; in this respect, today is historic. Last year, I was the first Western head of state to be welcomed to Cuba; many others – and I’m not complaining – have followed, and pretty much the whole world wants to support Cuba as it develops and opens up.
I’ve welcomed the gestures President Obama has made over the past few months, but the most important is still to come – the lifting of the unilateral embargo which, for too long, has inflicted intolerable suffering on the Cuban people and hindered potential trade with that country. France was one of the first nations, at the UN, to denounce the decision to impose an embargo and blockade. And every year at the General Assembly our diplomacy supports the resolution on the need to reverse that decision.
Similarly, France wants to bring the European Union and Cuba closer together by going back on the so-called “common position”, which is also nothing but a hindrance to trade and has lost all its meaning. I told you in Havana about the French people’s affection for your country, Mr President. Indeed, our ties date back to the 16th century; I haven’t gone back further for fear of getting my history wrong. And it seems that it was in the 16th century that French corsairs – they existed back then – arrived on the Cuban coast. The founders of the city of Cienfuegos were from Bordeaux, and French architecture and culture are still very much in evidence there.
French people later on moved to Cuba following the Haitian Revolution to grow coffee there, which we continue today through fair trade – and, incidentally, an agreement was signed this afternoon directed at this. Men subsequently spread ideas. We know what brings us together, our two flags bear the colours blue, white and red and your national anthem, La Bayamesa, has overtones of La Marseillaise. We share a similar commitment to independence. José Martí, your national hero, when exiled in France, talked about this to Victor Hugo during their famous meeting. The bravery of the Cuban insurgents, and particularly the women, inspired some of his finest passages.
Later, much later in the second part of the 20th century, we’re conscious of what Cuba represented for peoples seeking their freedom, and there are women and men here who supported your revolution. Then – despite international tensions, despite a number of differences – our two countries built peaceful relations. François Mitterrand welcomed Fidel Castro when he paid a private visit – that was in 1995, but as I said, a Cuban head of state had never been to France on an official visit.
Let me remind you that we’re well aware of our differences, but what unites us is stronger. We don’t always see every issue in the same way, especially human rights, but our friendship allows us to talk about them freely, and that’s what is essential. Cuba is respected and listened to throughout Latin America.
I want to pay tribute to the essential role you’ve played, Mr President, in the Colombian peace process, negotiations for which are being held in Havana and aim to bring an end to a conflict which has gone on for over 60 years. The solution wouldn’t have been found without Cuba’s mediation. Similarly, the close ties Cuba maintains with Venezuela are an asset when it comes to ensuring that dialogue in that country and between that country and its neighbours prevails, and I’m not forgetting the solidarity Cuba shows towards the whole continent every time it experiences adversity. I’m thinking particularly of the Caribbean area, where France is present through its overseas collectivities; that’s why I say that France and Cuba are neighbours. We’re working with you to develop the whole region.
Finally, I want to emphasize how useful Cuba’s voice was – and Laurent Fabius can testify to this – on 12 December at the Paris Climate Conference. During the night of 12 December, there was another negotiation, probably the most discreet but essential for Cuba. The Paris Club was meeting and had decided that night to cancel Cuba’s debt. I wanted to honour the commitment I had made to you on my visit last year; that decision is going to facilitate Cuba’s access to international finance, and first of all, ours – the French Development Agency will make its contribution, French businesses – and I welcome their representatives here – are also ready to invest more.
The economic road map just signed between our two countries provides a list of the areas, and they’re not restrictive. There’s infrastructure, agrifood, the environment, energy, tourism, and I could add culture, because I want to add culture. It’s always brought our two countries closer together.
For a long time Alejo Carpentier, author of The Century of Lights and The Lost Steps, was Cuba’s representative in Paris. The ideals of the French Revolution inspired his work, and his friendship with Robert Desnos inspired his love of our language. Some will remember that Alejo Carpentier appeared on TV programmes, including with Bernard Pivot, and deeply moved people when he talked about his country and the links he wanted to forge with French culture.
This cultural relationship has continued, and as I speak the spotlight is being shone on the painter Wilfredo Lam at the Centre Pompidou. I remind you that he lived in Paris and was a friend of Picasso. The French Film Festival in Havana – it’s the 18th – took place last April and is an exceptional space for sharing works.
We also wanted a month of French culture to be organized in Cuba this year, or rather you wanted it and we gladly agreed. Major events are being prepared, particularly concerts: I know there’s a DJ here who is especially famous, and Cubans will finally be able to see him, although for us he’s a local!
Our two countries share the same commitment to education and science. I’d like students to come and go even more easily, I’d like us to welcome more from Cuba, and we’ll work together to have degrees [mutually] recognized.
In May 2015, during my visit to Havana, I had the opportunity to inaugurate the Alliance française; it’s in a magnificent location in one of the finest buildings in the Cuban capital, the Palacio Gómez. I remind you that it was thanks to Che Guevara, then a minister in Cuba, that France had the opportunity to have this institution in Havana, and today 12,000 Cubans learn French there. That’s why it too was an especially touching moment.
“An educated country is strong and free, even if it does not have the riches of the world,” said José Martí. Therein lies, for France and Cuba, our ability to endure, to endure ordeals, and we showed this again last year; and you too, in other circumstances, know how to endure ordeals. France welcomes you, cher Raúl Castro, in the conviction that France’s talents, its resources and its businesses will be capable of supporting Cuba in its original development while respecting its identity.
And to celebrate the friendship between France and Cuba, I raise my glass today to you and your delegation!./.