As leaders of almost three dozen Democratic nations began Summit of the Americas trade talks in Quebec City, one representative of a potentially lucrative trading market was conspicuously absent: Fidel Castro, Cuba's president.

Almost 40 years to the day of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion (April 17, 1961) that launched Cuba's decades-long alliance with the Soviet Union and Communism and put it on the outs with the U.S., the Canadian conference laid the groundwork for an effort by President George Bush to put in place by 2005 a hemisphere-wide Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

While Congress has not voted Bush the “fast track” authority necessary to negotiate trade agreements for the U.S., the president has made no bones about the fact that he's a free trade proponent and that he's going to work to convince Congress — particularly the Democrats — to give him the necessary authority (which, in his administration, has been renamed “trade promotion authority”).

Stretching from Canada's frozen north through the U.S. to the bottom reaches of South America, the proposed FTAA would also include 14 Caribbean nations, seven in Central America, Panama, Brazil, and five Andean nations.

Cuba, though, is like Cinderella — not invited to the ball. He's left on the outside looking in, his source of financial support down the drain with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but still doggedly clinging to communism, his country's infrastructure for the most part still in the 1960s, and unable to get a foot in the door for making up with the U.S. and opening the doors to American trade and investment.

More than 11 million potential customers for U.S. agricultural products and goods/services of all kinds are just 90 miles off Florida's coast. There but for the embargo imposed by the U.S. on trade with Cuba could be millions of dollars in trade between the two nations. Cuba once was the No. 1 customer for U.S. rice, but now pays exorbitant shipping charges to import it from half a world away.

Legislation mute

Although Congress last year overwhelmingly passed legislation that would, in theory, ease the embargo and allow sales of U.S. farm products and medicine, in practice it has meant little. Because amendments prohibit the U.S. government and American banks from providing financing for such sales, Cuba would have to pay in cash, and Castro says no dice. Complicating things even more, the Treasury Department has taken the position that a special license is required for every transaction.

The Bush administration is reported to be in the process of developing rules to implement the legislation and ag groups continue to pressure Congress and the White House to take steps to facilitate the process. But anything involving more open relations with Cuba is like tippy-toeing through a swampful of alligators, given the strong opposition of the politically powerful Cuban-American contingent in Florida and elsewhere.

And even though Castro taunts the U.S. over the lost deals the sanctions are causing, not everyone sees Cuba as trading manna from heaven. The U.S. International Trade Commission says that based on average trade figures for 1996-98, exports to Cuba would have been less than 0.5 percent of total U.S. exports. Other countries that have sold millions of dollars of products to Cuba have been stiffed by Castro and have withheld further shipments. U.S. agricultural interests should be aware that selling to Castro does not mean getting paid, officials of these countries say.

So, nobody's making any bets on a thaw in the icy relations between the U.S. and Cuba anytime in the foreseeable future. After 40 years of waiting for Castro to be overthrown or die, the bearded one still reigns — and even were he to keel over tomorrow, his brother has been groomed to step in and continue the regime. Under the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, the U.S. must keep up its economic embargo until Castro is replaced and democratic elections are held. Fat chance.

e-mail: hembree_brandon@intertec.com