U.S. relations with Cuba are just marking time until the departure of two leaders, Fidel Castro from this Earth and George W. Bush from office in January 2009.
After that, many, not the least of them American exporters, expect that 45 years of sanctions on Cuba will be eased and perhaps removed altogether. Leading the charge through whatever gaps appear in the embargo will be American agriculture.
Proof of that was much in evidence at the recently concluded annual Cuban trade fair where more than 100 U.S. businesses and representatives from at least four states were there to sign deals and to position themselves to sign even more deals when sanctions are eased.
President Bush, well-attuned to the political influence of Cuban-Americans in the state of Florida, has been a hard-liner on Cuba, greatly restricting travel, tourism and financial transactions with the island.
But right before he took office, the powerful farm lobby won an exemption for food and agricultural products. From nothing those sales have grown to $500 million a year. And trade is trumping ideology. David Heineman, governor of the resolutely red state of Nebraska, was present to sign an $11 million deal for wheat.
The farm trade has grown in spite of intentional obstacles the Bush administration has placed in its way. Cuba must pay cash in advance, and there are onerous restrictions on shipping.
And late last month Bush reiterated his determination to continue the sanctions — trade would be “giving oxygen to a criminal regime” — and gave his vision for post-Castro Cuba — “the dissidents of today will be the nation’s leaders tomorrow.”
Maybe so, but the president is up against economic forces growing stronger as Castro grows more feeble. The United States was once Cuba’s largest trading partner and there are those on both sides who want to see it that way again.