HAVANA France's foreign minister arrived in Cuba on Saturday for a brief but historic visit, the first by such a high-ranking French official in 31 years and a sign of the quickening pace of improving ties between the European Union and Havana.
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius met with his Cuban counterpart Bruno Rodriguez upon arrival, and was scheduled to meet with Cardinal Jaime Ortega and then French businessmen.
Rodriguez met with Laurent in Paris last month.
"We want to strengthen our ties with South America and particularly with Cuba," Fabius said, before sitting down for talks with Rodriguez.
Both men pointed to the long history of friendly relations and cooperation between the two countries.
"Our bilateral relations are developing in a favorable way today and there are great possibilities for the future," Rodriguez said.
A French diplomat said Fabius would discuss with Rodriguez the beginning of a political dialogue that would include human rights, and business opportunities provided by economic reforms on the island.
No agreements were expected to be signed.
Since Fabius took office in 2012 he has tried to shift more of France's diplomatic focus toward winning contracts in markets where French firms are traditionally weak, as Paris looks to find growth opportunities overseas.
France is looking to expand its business ties with Latin America and sees Cuba as an important player in the region, given that it hosted a regional summit this year and both Brazil and Mexico are increasing their presence in the country.
Fabius was scheduled to return to France Saturday evening, having been in Mexico before stopping in Havana.
Bilateral trade last year was $388 million (280 million euros), according to the French government, mainly wheat exports to the communist-run Caribbean island.
Construction and engineering firm Bouygues, beverage maker Pernod-Ricard, the Accor tourism corporation and energy company Total, all have investments in Cuba and are among 60 French firms operating in the country.
France has also been leading efforts by the Paris Club of creditor nations to resume debt negotiations with Havana, broken off in 2000.
In February, the EU agreed to begin negotiations with Cuba to increase trade, investment and dialogue on human rights in its most significant diplomatic shift since it lifted sanctions on the country in 2008.
The talks are scheduled to begin April 29 in Havana, according to European diplomats, and they said the French foreign minister's visit would test the waters.
Cuba has been subject to a U.S. embargo for five decades. It is eager to eliminate the EU's "common position," enacted in December 1996, which links human rights and democracy conditions to improved economic relations.
To do so, the two sides will have to reach a new accord that is agreeable to all 28 member states, including Poland and the Czech Republic, which have taken a harder line on Cuba given their own communist pasts.
(Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Dan Grebler and James Dalgleish)