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It was an unlikely tour group: three U.S. Congress members, an actress from the television show "ER," members of the tourism industry - and myself. But on my recent trip to Cuba, sponsored by the Center for International Policy, I had the unique opportunity to observe economic and business conditions in a country that has been shut off from the United States for the past 40 years.

Recently, we have seen an attitude shift towards a more liberal trade policy with Cuba. The agriculture industry has been a major force in pushing for a relaxation, or even dissolution, of the U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba. But the embargo has always been a source of political tension, and it will require the strength of more than one industry to make real policy change. If we want to open doors to Cuba, we need to get more forces, such as the travel and tourism industry, behind us. This type of cooperation among industries could help shape a more rational policy toward Cuba.

With its small size and weak economy, it is unlikely that open trade with Cuba alone would have a monumental effect on the U.S. economy. But there is more to this relationship than trade numbers; a more open policy on the part of the United States would serve as a symbolic reminder to Cuba and the rest of the world.

Cuba stands as a dominant force among Caribbean and African countries. The country historically has had very close ties with these areas and developing nations. When we broke ties with Cuba, we were shutting the door on more than Cuba. We essentially closed ourselves off to a portion of the world markets - which is bad business any way you look at it.

The timing for an end of the embargo couldn't be better. As a country, Cuba possesses a highly educated work force, and much of this education has been applied to the field of science and research. The scientific community in Cuba is extremely interested in and supportive of biotechnology, making it a welcome market for U.S. biotech products.

In the past, the United States may have been concerned about competition from the Cuban sugar market. Recent policy changes in Cuba have moved the agricultural focus away from sugar production for economic reasons. As these farmers move to other crops, possibly fresh fruit and vegetables, they will need a great deal of equipment and technical assistance. Under the current embargo, the U.S. agriculture industry would be unable to provide this help.

Trade regulations make it nearly impossible for Cuba to purchase anything beyond basic raw commodities. The law prohibits any public or private financing of exports, making larger purchases, such as farm equipment or crop protection products, out of reach for the Cuban people. If we truly want to have a trade relationship with Cuba, we need to extend to them the rights we allow nearly every other nation, including China and Saudi Arabia - the right to buy on credit. While in Cuba, we saw firsthand how restrictive these policies are as we were unable to use American credit cards, a problem you would not have in any other place in the world. It was situations such as this that made me realize how unrealistic and restrictive our stance toward Cuba has been.

On my trip, I had the opportunity to meet with Fidel Castro for nearly five hours. I didn't see any of the extreme "anti-American" sentiment of which many politicians speak. Cuba is a nation with many cultural ties to the United States. The Cuban people keep in touch with their family in America, listen to Miami radio stations and purchase the small number of American imports that trickle into their country. For the most part, they are open to receiving American products. It has been the U.S.'s decision to isolate this country off our coast.

We are unlikely to see any real change in Cuban behavior until the United States makes changes in its policies. We have witnessed time and again that the more access a country has to the United States, the more change we see in systems and policies. With an ending of the embargo, we are likely to see the same effect. For example, under Castro's regime, nearly all farmland is owned by the government. With increased American involvement, we are likely to see more privatization.

It's unlikely that the end of the trade embargo will drastically affect the U.S. economy or upset Castro's political system. But that does not mean that the U.S.- Cuba relationship is unimportant. Some things should be done simply out of principle - because they're the right thing to do - and rebuilding this relationship is one of those instances. AM

Dan Glickman served as the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture from 1995-2001. He currently is an attorney with the Washington, D.C.-based law firm Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld and is a member of Doane Agricultural Services Co.,'s Advisory Council.

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