“The irony is that CastroÕs statement arrived hours after the conclusion of PresidentÕs Day, which was originally established to honor the birthday of George Washington–a military commander who voluntarily relinquished his political office after two terms of service, setting a democratic example that has guided American presidents ever since.

At any rate, CastroÕs overdue departure is a cause of celebration. He is a thug who oppressed the Cuban people for far too long. Good riddance to him.

Before we Americans get too excited about this development, however, letÕs bear in mind one indisputable fact: For nearly half a century, U.S. policy toward Cuba has been a spectacular failure. It never achieved the goal of forcing Castro from power. The 81-year-old despot leaves office on his own terms, bending merely to the inevitable pressures of his age and health rather than any real diplomatic influence from our shores.

Now is a perfect moment to reconsider our basic approach to Cuba and to try something new–namely, to end a policy of economic isolationism that has accomplished precisely nothing of positive value since it was first implemented in 1960. The embargo has neither enhanced the national security of the United States nor has it nudged Cuba toward freedom and democracy.

Unfortunately, much of Washington seems eager to keep banging its head against a Havana wall. Within hours of CastroÕs announcement, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte said the embargo wonÕt end: ÒI canÕt imagine that happening anytime soon.Ó

During the Cold War, a case could be made that blocking trade with Cuba served U.S. interests. Today, however, itÕs difficult to sell the embargo as a tough-on-Castro policy when it failed to shorten CastroÕs rule. With toughness like that, who needs soft-headed appeasers?

History teaches us that political liberalization often follows economic liberalization. ThatÕs why it makes sense to increase our trade with Cuba: If the islandÕs people get a taste of economic freedom, theyÕll begin to demand political freedom. WeÕd literally export our ideals.

Before CastroÕs revolution, Cuba had one of the highest per-capita GDPs in Latin America. About 80 percent of its trade took place with the United States. Today, Cuba is dirt poor and thereÕs virtually no trade with the United States–just $350 million in agricultural products last year, thanks to a very slight loosening of the embargo in 2000.

We could do so much more, especially here in California. Our farmerÕs ship less than $1 million to Cuba annually–a tiny figure that the first official trade mission from our state tried to address last month.

Yet this isnÕt a parochial question for the Golden State. ThereÕs a lot our entire country could do for Cuba, both to improve the quality of life for its ordinary citizens and to push for a democratic transition that is in their interest as well as ours.

According to one report, Cuba needs 50,000 new homes. This represents not only a fantastic business opportunity, but also a chance to spread goodwill. Yet the embargo makes it impossible for American companies to get involved.

CubaÕs new leader is FidelÕs 76-year-old kid brother, Raul. Some hope that heÕll be a more reasonable leader, but this isnÕt likely. The Castro regime will continue in both name and spirit. (As Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida quipped, Òone down and one to go.Ó)

The hope is that we can take advantage of what appears to be a transitional struggle between old diehards of the Castro generation and a set of younger leaders who must know that CommunismÕs days are numbered. The United States should place its bet with HavanaÕs potential reformers, and show them through diplomacy and economic policy that Cuba has much to gain if it chooses to abandon CastroÕs wretched ways.

The bottom line is that we shouldnÕt watch another nine presidencies go by again. ItÕs time to trade with Cuba.

Ted Sheely raises lettuce, cotton, tomatoes, wheat, pistachios, wine grapes and garlic on a family farm in the California San Joaquin Valley. He is a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology www.truthabouttrade.org