The island of Cuba is for the first time opening its doors to a United Nations rapporteur – Jean Ziegler, the Swiss who is the UN's envoy on the right to food.
Ziegler, who has been assured full cooperation with the authorities, arrived on Sunday and will stay in the Caribbean republic until November 6 in what is a controversial trip.
The Cuban embassy in Geneva sent an invitation to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in June asking for Ziegler in what was seen as a surprise move.
Only six days before Cuba had succeeded in having the post of UN Representative on Human Rights in Cuba abolished. Havana repeatedly refused to accept Christine Chanet of France on Cuban territory.
Ziegler, a former Swiss Social Democratic parliamentarian, says that his invitation is "a signal that Cuba is opening up to collaboration with the UN" and wants to cooperate actively with the new UN Human Rights Council.
He believes the gesture will not be limited to him alone and other UN envoys will benefit as a result.
Sign of change
According to the Swiss sociologist, it is a sign that the Cuban regime is changing.
"The period of glaciation is over and a period of cooperation is beginning," comments Ziegler, who will present a report on his findings next year at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
As soon as the visit was announced, there was an avalanche of reaction. Non-governmental organisations called on Ziegler to make conditions and criticised him for legitimising the Cuban regime, now in the hands of Fidel Castro's brother, Raúl.
But Amnesty International hailed Havana's invitation as a "first step" in Cuba's desire to re-open dialogue with the UN.
"We hope that Cuba will make more such gestures and for example invite the UN Rapporteur on the Freedom of Opinion and Expression," commented Peter Splinter, Amnesty's representative at the UN.
Bertrand Louis, ambassador at the Swiss embassy in Cuba, which represents United States interests in the country, warns against having too many expectations.
Contrary to the warming of relations between the US and North Korea over the past few months, there has been no rapprochement between Washington and Havana.
According to the ambassador, dialogue is dead between the Bush administration, which has good relations with anti-Castro groups in Florida, and the Cuban government.
While there is continuing speculation on the health of Fidel Castro, there are questions whether Havana has decided it wants to improve its image abroad or if this is a propaganda operation.
Havana is hoping that Ziegler in his capacity as UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food will attack the US trade embargo on Cuba, a country which suffers frequent electricity cuts and has a rationing system of a bygone age.
Ziegler underlines that Cuba will, like any other country, have no right to change his report, except for formal errors.
He remains cautious as to the impact of his visit, saying that his powers as a rapporteur are limited. He also notes that for the time being the White House is not prepared for dialogue.
swissinfo with agencies
The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food has called for a five-year moratrium on the production of biofuels, even if they help in the fight against climate change.
At the UN in New York on Friday, Ziegler said the use of crops for biofeul production was making basic foodstuffs more expensive and more people were suffering from hunger.
As an example, he said that 232 kilogrammes of maize were needed to produce 50 litres of ethanol. The same amount could feed a child in Mexico or Zambia for a whole year, he said.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food is a former professor of social science and economics at the universities of Geneva and the Sorbonne in Paris.
The 73-year-old Ziegler has a reputation as an outspoken critic of globalisation and was a prominent member of the centre-left Social Democratic Party in the Swiss parliament until June 1991.
He was appointed to his present position at the UN in 2000.
Ziegler is one of several top Swiss UN representatives, including special adivisor for sport Adolf Ogi and human rights expert Walter Kälin.