Cuban baseball team to play in the US after Bush steps in

This weekend, the US Treasury finally granted Cuba a licence to play in the 16-nation WBC, but only after remarkable personal interventions by the leaders of the two countries, for 45 years divided by economic sanctions imposed by Washington against President Castro's Communist regime.

First, Fidel Castro promised to donate any profits Cuba makes from the event to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, thus complying with the sanctions' requirement that Havana does not benefit financially.

Then President Bush, a lifelong baseball fan and former managing partner of the Texas Rangers major league team, stepped in, effectively ordering the Treasury to reverse course.

Officials here insist the move does not signify a change in sanctions policy - which if anything has been tightened by this Republican administration. Cuban-American politicians here nonetheless condemned the lifting of the ban. It allowed "the Cuban totalitarian regime to utilise a sporting event for propaganda purposes", complained Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Florida Congressman.

In fact, had the US not relented, the entire tournament might have been scrapped: several Caribbean and Latin American participants would almost certainly have pulled out.

The WBC, which will largely take place on US soil, begins on 7 March. Cuba, which has won three of the last four Olympic gold medals for baseball, is a major power in the sport.