With U.S. efforts to isolate Cuba flouted by its friends and foes alike, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien headed to Havana on Sunday to build on his nation's growing ties with the communist-ruled island.

Chretien is one of the most important Western leaders to visit Cuba in years. His trip comes amid a string of victories in Cuba's efforts to break out of a U.S.-backed diplomatic isolation.Canada, like many European and Latin American nations, favors a path of "constructive engagement," arguing that persuasion will be more effective in bringing change in Cuba.

"Of course we will raise the question of human rights and political rights," Chretien said before departing, according to the Canadian Press.

"Isolation leads nowhere. But if we are engaging them, discussing with them, offering help . . . the people of Cuba and the president of Cuba will certainly be happy to have a dialogue."

U.S. officials disagree. But Canadian leaders insist the visit will have little impact on relations with the United States.

"They understand that we have a different position," Canada's Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy said last week.

Chretien will arrive at a symbol of Canada's growing role in Cuba: a Canadian-financed terminal at Havana's Jose Marti International Airport.

Canada rivals Italy as the largest supplier of foreign tourists to Cuba's famed beaches.

Cuba has long been one of the most visible points of difference between Canada and the United States.