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Guest editorial: Overtures to Cuba could bring results

The announced resignation of Cuba's President Fidel Castro this week should allow the United States to open a new chapter of international relationships with the island less than 100 miles off our southern shores. While we know turning around a 50-year communist regime won't happen overnight -- especially with Castro's brother, Raul, 76, the likely successor as president when the newly elected National Assembly meets Sunday to chose the 31 people who form the Council of State that will lead Cuba for the next five years.

That Fidel Castro will finally step down hasn't as yet caused an indication of change from the White House in how U.S. policy should or should not change. An embargo on Cuban products is still in force, U.S. travel to Cuba is still banned, and there are limits to what the United States can sell and export to Cuba.

We understand the need to move Cuba -- one of the last communist strongholds in the world outside of China -- toward democracy, but a huge opportunity exists for bringing our peoples closer together and to pave the way for a democratic, free market economy and society in Cuba.

It also presents an opportunity for Midwest states, such as Minnesota and North Dakota, to grow agricultural markets in Cuba. When Cuba lessened its trade restrictions in the 1990s, many states began sending ag products to Cuba. Minnesota agricultural exports to Cuba in 2005 -- the latest year available from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture -- totaled $22.4 million, with soybeans and soybean products topping at $8.4 million and corn at $6.8 million. But Minnesota exports also included wheat, poultry, live animals and meat, and dairy products.

A 2002 state study produced an export scenario of high growth in exports to Cuba reaching $45.5 million, yielding a total output impact of $91.9 million and affecting 901 jobs.

U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba, while stagnant the last few years, grew rapidly from only $26,000 in 2000 to $328 million in 2006. Cuba grew from being No. 180 in 2000 in country markets for U.S. agricultural exports to No. 32 in 2006. We can only image what a free market exchange with Cuba could bring in new revenues for U.S. products.

The same kind of opportunities are possible for North Dakota as well.

The United States needs to keep pressing for government reforms in Cuba, and we hope that the mood for change will intensify now that Fidel Castro presumably is no longer making decisions. It's also time for the White House to extend incentives for change, instead of standing by the punitive measures that have been in place for decades.

-- Bemidji Pioneer