It’s been a year since Cuban dictator Fidel Castro was last seen in public.

He is not immortal but it sure looks like he is attempting just that. On August 13 he will turn 81.
Yet it seems like he’s been around forever, not just 50 years. Since the days of President Eisenhower, Castro has been a thorn in the side of the United States.

The sands of time run out on everyone, however, and last year Castro underwent intestinal surgery. A lot of Cuba-watchers guessed that he wouldn’t last long, but recent pictures suggest that if he isn’t exactly an image of youthful vigor, he has made at least a partial recovery.

Say this much about Castro: He’s a survivor. Today, one of the world’s most brutal rulers continues to cling to power.

“How long he stays on earth, that’s a decision that will be made by the Almighty,” said President Bush a few weeks ago. “One day, the good Lord will take Fidel Castro away.”

When that happens, the United States and Cuba will inherit a unique opportunity to improve their relationship. “The question is, what will be the approach of the U.S. government?” asked Bush. “My attitude is that we need to use the opportunity to call the world together to promote democracy as the alternative to the form of government that [the Cubans] have been living with.”

That’s for sure. Cuba’s biggest problem remains Communism–a totalitarian ideology that should have died at the end of the Cold War, but which lingers on, like a never-ending head cold, in a handful of backward nations.

Yet it’s never too early or too late to be honest about longstanding American policy toward Cuba: It’s a failure.

How can it be described in any other way? The stated purpose of the economic embargo–first enacted some 45 years ago–is to pressure the Cuban government into allowing democratic reforms. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened. The Cuban people are still among the least-free people on the planet.

Continuing to place a chokehold on economic activity between the United States and Cuba makes little sense. Political liberalization often follows economic liberalization, which means that trying to increase trade between our two countries right now could represent the first step toward a Cuban democracy. The Cuban people, with a ‘taste of the better life’, could begin to move the mountain.

Before the embargo, 80 percent of Cuba’s trade was with the United States. Today, Canada, China, the Netherlands, and Venezuela lead the way.

The embargo isn’t airtight–a certain amount of trade is permitted. Last year, American farmers exported products worth $570 million to Cuba. A new report from the International Trade Commission says that this figure would quickly double if U.S.-Cuba trade weren’t limited by political considerations.

Other sectors of the U.S. economy would benefit as well. A recent article in Forbes delivered a simple message: “Don’t wait for a regime change. Invest in Cuba now.”

Genuine investment opportunities won’t arise until after the embargo is lifted, but American companies are already plotting their strategies. One group, the Cuba Business Roundtable, advises them on developments.

Positive change in Cuba will require a change of political will in Washington. A bipartisan bill that eases travel and trade restrictions would be a good start. For one thing, it would eliminate a 2005 rule that requires food shipments bound for Cuba to be fully paid before leaving port. That is not something we require of other trading partners.

The bottom line is that if we adopt sensible measures now, we’ll find ourselves in a good position to promote democracy in Cuba when the critical moment of transition finally comes.

“Next year in Havana” is a common refrain among members of the Cuban exile community in Miami and elsewhere. It embodies the dream that they’ll be able to return to the land that was taken from them decades ago.

I hope they realize this ambition. Not only will their involvement in a new Cuba begin to rectify the many injustices of the Castro years, but, with their free market experience, they’ll play positive roles in the island’s political and economic improvement.

But we don’t need to wait for Castro to go to his eternal reward before we begin laying the foundation for this success story. Life is too short for that.

Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, traveled to Cuba in 1999 as part of an agriculture fact-finding mission. Mr. Kleckner chairs Truth About Trade & Technology www.truthabouttrade.org