It's odd. The United States, late last year, approved giving permanent normal trading relations to China, even though there was ongoing, widespread opposition because of China's continuing hard line on human rights, labor, and other policies.

Yet, it continues to impose trade sanctions on a potentially significant ag market just 90 miles off our southernmost shores, Cuba. Although that country's still in the clutches of long-time dictator Fidel Castro, he's pretty much toothless in terms of a security threat to the United States since losing his Soviet patronage with the breakup of the USSR.

U.S. citizens have traveled freely to China for decades, but it's still illegal for them to travel to Cuba, once a major vacation spot (many nonetheless subvert the law and go there by traveling through Canada, Mexico, or the Bahamas).

Long in the doldrums economically, Cuba is now attracting considerable investment by companies from many industrialized countries, while U.S. firms have to sit on the sidelines and watch, hamstrung by a 40-year-old embargo.

Congress passed a law in 2000 allowing limited sales of food, medicine, and a few other categories, but at the same time it barred U.S. financing of such sales, pretty much negating its effectiveness. Some companies — Riceland Foods, for one (Cuba once was the largest market for American rice) — have been able to make limited progress, but the bureaucratic maze makes it extremely difficult.

The devastation of Hurricane Michelle in November resulted in a tiny crack in the U.S.-Cuba trade door. Spurning a U.S. offer of humanitarian aid, Castro instead offered a one-time cash purchase of U.S. ag products. This resulted in about $30 million in sales and the first sales of American farm products in 40 years.

The U.S. International Trade Commission says, had it not been for the embargo, trade with Cuba would be in the billions of dollars. Benefits to American farmers could be in the hundreds of millions.

While U.S. and Cuban leaders maintain that the recent sales to Cuba represented a one-time happening, there is an underlying current of optimism that it represents a first step toward easing or totally removing the embargo.

Although the aged Castro still is no fan of the United States, and Cuba has its own human rights/labor concerns, they don't differ that much from China's, and certainly involve a far smaller populace. Opening the doors to trade and travel could help to foster an environment of modernization and improved relations.

Coming up later this month at Cancun, Mexico, is a major conference on U.S. agricultural sales to Cuba, aimed at exploring ways to deal with the onerous U.S. licensing requirements, fostering contacts with senior officials from Cuban agencies and ministries, and opening the door to more sales of American farm products.

For more than four decades, the embargo has achieved its goal of relegating Cuba to a black hole with regard to U.S. trade/travel. It has also given companies in Canada, Europe, Asia, and Latin America an opportunity to step in and make sales at premium prices and high transportation costs.

It's about time the United States got back in the game.