Britain praises Cuba's Castro for embracing realities of modernity

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Britain praises Cuba's Castro for embracing realities of modernity
People sit and stand near a Wi-Fi hotspot in Havana, March 17, 2016. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino
A boy holds a portable video player as he walks with his mother in Havana September 18, 2015. The United States on Friday issued regulations easing restrictions on American companies seeking to do business in Cuba and opening up travel in the latest action to weaken the U.S. trade embargo amid warming relations with the Communist country. The rules, which take effect on Monday, September 21, target travel, telecommunications, Internet-based services, business operations and banking, and allow U.S. companies to establish a presence in Cuba. They also eliminate limits on the amount of money people can send back to the Caribbean nation. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
U.S. medical student Yasemin Lawson, 35, from Washington, uses the internet at a Wi-Fi hotspot in Havana, September 22, 2015. Cuba's new Wi-Fi hotspots - 35 nationwide since July with more promised soon - are a sensation in a highly-controlled country with one of the world's lowest Internet penetrations. Picture taken September 22, 2015. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini
Kevin Lachaise, 8, watches a recorded TV show through the screen of a computer at the living room of his home in downtown Havana February 10, 2015. Netflix Inc launched its movie and TV streaming service in Cuba on Monday, joining the list of U.S. companies looking to take advantage of thawing diplomatic relations between the United States and the communist-ruled island country. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini (CUBA - Tags: BUSINESS MEDIA SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY)
Youths use the internet via their mobile devices, with the aid of wi-fi from a nearby hotel, in Holguin, Cuba September 20, 2015. Pope Francis met Cuba's revolutionary leader Fidel Castro on Sunday hours after warning Cubans to beware the dangers of ideology and the lure of selfishness as their country enters a new era of closer ties with the United States. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Young people use the internet via the free wifi at the studio of Cuban artist Alexis Leyva "Kcho" in Havana March 24, 2015. The studio is where former Cuban president Fidel Castro has his last public appearance and the password of the wifi connection is "Nobody surrenders here". REUTERS/Enrique de la Osa
Informatics technician Yurkel Medina, 36, studies about new technologies at the mobile phone repair shop where he works in downtown Havana, February 23, 2016. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini
Cubans use the internet via public Wi-Fi in Havana July 2, 2015. Cuba has opened 35 Wi-Fi access points nationwide, offering unprecedented online access in a country that until now has restricted use of the Internet to an elite few. Before the Wi-Fi signals became available on Wednesday, broadband Internet access had been limited to largely to desktops at state Internet parlors and pricey hotels. To match story CUBA-INTERNET/ REUTERS/Enrique de la Osa
Girls use the internet to communicate at a Wi-Fi hotspot in Havana, September 22, 2015. Cuba's new Wi-Fi hotspots - 35 nationwide since July with more promised soon - are a sensation in a highly-controlled country with one of the world's lowest Internet penetrations. Picture taken September 22, 2015. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini
People sit near a Wi-Fi hotspot in a square at Havana, Cuba March 19, 2016. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado
Young people use the internet via the free wifi at the studio of Cuban artist Alexis Leyva "Kcho" in Havana March 24, 2015. The studio is where former Cuban president Fidel Castro has his last public appearance and the password of the wifi connection is "Nobody surrenders here". REUTERS/Enrique de la Osa
Young people use the internet at a Wi-Fi hotspot in Havana, September 22, 2015. Cuba's new Wi-Fi hotspots - 35 nationwide since July with more promised soon - are a sensation in a highly-controlled country with one of the world's lowest Internet penetrations. Picture taken September 22, 2015. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini
Artist Dariel Llerandis, 31, speaks to his wife who is in Miami using the internet at a Wi-Fi hotspot in Havana, September 22, 2015. Cuba's new Wi-Fi hotspots - 35 nationwide since July with more promised soon - are a sensation in a highly-controlled country with one of the world's lowest Internet penetrations. Picture taken September 22, 2015. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini
A man surfs the internet using a wireless connection in the lobby of a hotel in Havana January 23, 2013. An undersea fiber-optic cable that promises to bring Cuban Internet and phone communications into the 21st Century stirred to life this week, two years after it was laid between Venezuela and the Caribbean island. When fully operational, the cable will provide download speeds 3,000 times faster than Cuba's current Internet and be capable of handling millions of phone calls simultaneously, the government said when it was being laid. REUTERS/Desmond Boylan (CUBA - Tags: BUSINESS TELECOMS SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY SOCIETY)
A Cuban migrant (L) holds a phone rented by a resident as other Cubans wait for their turn at the local internet cafe in Puerto Obaldia in the province of Guna Yala November 25, 2015. Thousands of Cubans remain stuck on the Costa Rican side of the border with Nicaragua after Managua refused at a regional summit on Tuesday to open its doors to a wave of migrants heading for the United States. According to the local migration office in Puerto Obaldia, more than 700 Cubans are waiting to leave as others continue to arrive in groups of 30 to 50 to continue their journey north from Panama. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso
An autistic child attends a computer class at the Dora Alonso School in Havana April 29, 2013. The Dora Alonso School is a school specializing in treating children who suffer from autism spectrum disorders. The building housing the school was a military facility before the 1959 Cuban Revolution, and was inaugurated as a school for children with special needs ten years ago by Cuba's former President Fidel Castro. Picture taken April 29, 2013. REUTERS/Enrique De La Osa (CUBA - Tags: HEALTH SOCIETY EDUCATION)
Informatics student William Campos, 18, sits on a rock as he uses the internet with his mobile phone in Havana, September 18, 2015. The United States on Friday issued regulations easing restrictions on American companies seeking to do business in Cuba and opening up travel in the latest action to weaken the U.S. trade embargo amid warming relations with the Communist country. The rules, which take effect on Monday, Sept. 21, target travel, telecommunications, Internet-based services, business operations and banking, and allow U.S. companies to establish a presence in Cuba. They also eliminate limits on the amount of money people can send back to the Caribbean nation. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini
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HAVANA, April 29 (Reuters) - Britain's Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond on Friday praised Cuban President Raul Castro for embracing the realities of the modern world after a meeting with the Communist leader that marked a further step in Cuba's thaw with the West.

He is the first British Foreign Secretary to set foot on the Caribbean island since its 1959 revolution, and his visit follows one by U.S. President Barack Obama in March.

Hammond said he had a "long and interesting discussion" with Castro about the octogenarian leader's push to update one of the world's last Soviet-style command economies.

"He is espousing a program of gradual change, embracing the realities of the world we live in," Hammond said in an interview at the British ambassador's residence in Havana.

"I was very struck by the fact that he described the Internet as the reality of our world, spoke positively about the benefits the Internet could bring."

Cuba still has one of the world's lowest Internet penetrations with access expensive and restricted.

The state says it wants to expand access and has been installing Wi-Fi hotspots throughout the country. But change is slow and critics suggest the government fears losing control of media and seeing new avenues of political opposition open up.

Castro has vowed to "update" Cuba's socialist model but market-style reforms have been implemented haltingly and even reversed in some areas. A Communist Party Congress this month proposed little new to tackle the country's economic woes.

"Castro is seeking to position himself in the middle between those who are resisting change and those who want much faster, more radical change," said Hammond, adding that Britain hoped to foster reforms through cooperation in certain sectors.

The Foreign Secretary said the government recognized its financial services sector was underdeveloped.

"Castro said to me directly 'we lack management expertise in banking services' and this is an area where the UK (United Kingdom) has something very clear to offer," he said.

The main sectors where Britain sees opportunities for its companies to do business in Cuba were financial services, tourism and renewable energy, Hammond said.

Challenges to doing business in Cuba remain however, he said, not least due to the U.S. trade embargo.

"We have also had discussions with the U.S. about the challenges for British and other European banks in doing business with countries that face U.S. sanctions," said Hammond.

"There are some problems here but we are working through them with the U.S. and hope to make progress in a way that will enable British businesses to do more business with Cuba."

Exports of British goods to Cuba rose 32 percent in 2015 compared with the previous year but the government deems there is scope for growth as other European countries export far more to the island.

Related: U.S. cruise ship makes historic visit to Cuba:
U.S. Cruise Ship Makes Historic Visit to Cuba

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