AUBURN, Ill. – Garry Niemeyer has his eye on a new market for the corn and soybeans he grows on his Illinois farm -- a hungry country not much farther away than a barge ride down the Mississippi River.
For 40 years, Cuba has seemed a world away to farmers like Niemeyer and other American businessmen because of the U.S. trade embargo against the communist country 90 miles off Florida.
"When we have a market that's this close, it's a shame not to utilize it to the fullest extent," Niemeyer said. "The potential is overwhelming."
Politicians from farm states, led in part by Republican Gov. George Ryan and his twting increasing pressure on the Bush administration to ease the sanctions. And Fidel Castro has signaled a willingness to do business.
Trade sanctions were instituted in the 1960s and tightened in 1992. They were softened in 2000, when a law was passed allowing direct sales of food to Cuba for cash.
Havana did not take advantage of the eased regulations until Hurricane Michelle swept the island in November. After that, Cuba signed $35 million in contracts for cash purchases of American corn, rice, wheat, poultry and other food. The first shipment of grain from seven states arrived in December.
At the time, Castro indicated it would be a one-time deal. But lately he has signaled a willingness to buy more if Washington would allow sales on credit.
Ryan -- whose state is No. 2 in corn and soybean production and home to two of the world's biggest tractor manufacturers, John Deere and Caterpillar -- said Cuba is too poor to spend much currency overseas, and he backs credit sales.
Illinois economic development officials believe free trade could bring the United States up to $1 billion in agricultural business with Cuba, including the sale of food and equipment.
"The embargo has been on for 40 years, and it hasn't done a bit of good," Ryan said in a recent interview. "It's a political issue, but time heals a lot of things, and it's been 40 years."
Resistance to free trade with Cuba remains strong. President Bush has called the sanctions "a moral statement" and insists that U.S.-Cuba relations will not improve until Cuba embraces democracy and human rights.
But pro-trade supporters think they are chipping away at the resistance.
Since 1999, eight U.S. senators and 18 House members have been to Cuba, resulting in the partial easing of trade restrictions. Ryan's trip to Cuba in 1999 was the first by a governor since Castro came to power in 1959.
"When we went out to the farms, the equipment was so old I couldn't believe it. The John Deere and Caterpillar equipment that was there was very bad, but they were still using it," Ryan said.
Earlier this month, representatives from 21 states attended a Cuba trade conference in Mexico. Several state legislatures have passed resolutions calling for an end to the trade embargo; others are expected to follow suit.
A delegation from California that included four members of Congress was the latest to visit Cuba, entertaining Castro in Havana last week with song and Napa Valley wines.
Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvine, who visited Cuba in 2000 and was a co-host of the trade conference in Mexico, said Cuban officials have repeatedly demonstrated an eagerness for American products.
"My feeling is that it is just a matter of time until Cuba will be ours for the taking as far as exporting and importing products," Irvine said.
For Niemeyer, president of the Illinois Corn Growers Association, that cannot happen soon enough. He believes that free trade with Cuba could bolster sagging crop prices and help the U.S. farm economy rebound while providing the island relatively cheap food.
But he concedes nothing will happen without continued pressure from politicians.
"You don't get anywhere if you don't have that," he said. "Farmers didn't put the embargoes on, politicians did."