Wind of change blows through Cuba's relations with America

Click to follow

Nonetheless, the mere fact of an aid delegation being welcomed into the country is an unprecedented step by the Castro regime. Until now, the question of assistance from the US in times of natural calamity has never been put under consideration.

Speaking on television on Thursday night, the 79-year-old Cuban leader tried to play down the political significance of the visit. "Cuba has not solicited international aid,'' he said. He cast the visit in the context of improving co-operation within the Caribbean to deal with future shared emergencies.

"We have no objections at all to the three officials visiting us, to know their assessment and exchange views on these matters," he said. "We won't close the door." He added that he shared "the point of view" that countries in the area should "provide mutual assistance in situations of disaster''.

Although Cuba evacuated 600,000 people before Wilma struck on Monday, its power took many by surprise. Properties along the west coast were destroyed or flooded. In Havana, the storm surge broke through the majestic Malecon sea wall and left parts of the city waist-deep. Many historic and largely neglected buildings are in danger of crumbling as the water recedes.

The approach by Washington was made on Tuesday in a letter from the new US Interests Section chief in Havana, Michael Parmly.

The delegation will be made up of three officials from the US Agency for International Development, and if US aid is eventually extended to help with the clean-up in Cuba, it will be funnelled through non-governmental aid charities.

Since taking power in 1959, President Castro has been stalwart in never accepting assistance from the United States. Similarly, when Cuba offered to send more than a thousand doctors and tons of medical supplies to Lousiana and Mississippi in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the US declined.

However, if America does provide aid after Wilma, it is not expected to lead to any wider thaw in the chill between the countries. Washington remains determined that Cuba should enter a transition to democratic rule when the Castro era ends and restrictions on the country have been tightened since President George Bush entered the White House.