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Sunday, 16 December, 2001, 21:06 GMT
US food arrives in Cuba
Freighter MV Ikan Mazatlan arriving in Havana
The sale is seen as a one-off response to the hurricane
A freighter carrying the first commercial shipment of food from the United States to Cuba in nearly 40 years has docked in the port of Havana.

The Florida-based MV Express, carrying 500 tonnes of frozen chicken, arrived with little fanfare.

It was followed by another ship - the Mexican-flagged Ikan Mazatlan, carrying 24,000 tonnes of US corn - which had been expected to dock first.

Fidel Castro
Opponents of Fidel Castro warn against easing the embargo
The US - which imposed a trade embargo on Cuba in 1962 - authorised the commercial shipment in response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Michelle to the Caribbean island last month.

Several more ships are due in Cuba in the next few weeks, carrying wheat, soya beans, rice and corn.

The US Congress passed a law last year allowing American companies to sell products to Cuba on a humanitarian basis.

However, it has said the embargo will remain in place until President Fidel Castro improves human rights and makes democratic reforms.

Political milestone

Both Washington and Havana have said the sale was a one-off due to the special circumstances brought about by the hurricane.

But the BBC's Daniel Schweimler in Havana says the ice has been broken and it is likely that relations between the United States and Cuba will not be quite the same again.

The shipment has sparked a heated debate in the United States between the growing lobby that wants to see the US trade embargo lifted and the influential Cuban-American community in Miami that says the food will only bolster Mr Castro's communist government.

Cuban Foreign Investment Minister Marta Lomas said the shipment was an important first step in easing US sanctions.

"We will have to wait and see if there is a second or a third step - we don't know," she said.

"One day, the blockade will have to end, and we will have normal relations."

Hurricane damage

Cuban media made no mention of the ship's arrival.

The total value of the shipments expected in Havana is estimated at about $30m.

Hurricane Michelle struck Cuba on 4 November, destroying crops and thousands of homes.

The United Nations has said Cuba could face food shortages in the next few months.

The BBC's Vanessa Heaney
"US farm exporters would like to see sanctions eased"
The BBC's Daniel Schweimler
"The ice has been broken"
See also:

30 Nov 01 | Americas
US sells food to Cuba
22 Nov 01 | Americas
US company signs food deal with Cuba
14 Jul 01 | Americas
US tightens sanctions on Cuba
17 Nov 01 | Americas
Castro welcomes one-off US trade
12 Jul 01 | Business
US threat to Cuban investors
06 Jul 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Cuba
19 May 01 | Americas
Bush stands firm on Cuban sanctions
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