Talk about manufacturing powerhouses! China is now the fourth largest economy in the world, clocking in at more than $1 trillion in goods and services every year — mostly goods, which is my point.

It seems sometimes that the Chinese are the only people in the world anymore who make things. They send us billions of dollars in all kinds of consumer products — from baskets to big-screen TVs. We (and a lot of other countries) send them machinery and all kinds of parts. However, they are moving more and more into advanced machinery manufacturing, reports tell us. Some parts of China, in fact, have become downright wealthy as their industries boom from exports all over the world.

Now take our much, much smaller former friend just south of Miami. Cuba has been on the official Bad Guy List for those same 40 years. In fact, as everyone who can read or watch a screen now knows or recalls, the world almost went into nuclear night because of some missiles that were headed to that island in 1962.

Mr. Castro is still there. Unfortunately for him and his cronies, the Soviet Union is not still there, and his country has been reduced to a kind of elegant shabbiness in the world, forced to fend for itself while we still keep it blacklisted and embargoed.

Some of our fellow citizens have been visiting the island in recent years, and I hear from them that Cuba is an economic disaster and could benefit from trade with the United States. The tourist industry is one of Cuba’s big hopes, I gather. As for making appliances, let alone machinery, well, that might be a ways off.

Now what has all of this to do with you and industrial engineering and manufacturing in America? Well, I just wondered if I’m the only one who finds something funny about how we relate to these two countries. I mean, we have a huge, larger-than-we country in the East that looks like it’s going to become one of the Industrial Powerhouses of the Future and we are falling all over ourselves to make friends with it. Then we have this miserable little poverty candidate to our south that seems to deserve more pity than suspicions.

China, according to just about all the experts as well as the people who might know what they’re talking about, is emerging as a major military and industrial power — perhaps THE power in both realms. Cuba is pathetic; its industries moribund, its leadership comic, its future depressing. Why, I naively ask, are we so dedicated to chumminess with what looks like the new industrial Dragon in the East and so insistent on stomping on the sick kitten to the south?

From a business point of view, some cynics say, China is where it is. It buys a lot of machinery and it ships a lot of products. Trade is good for both ... even though China is “officially” communist. Most favored nation status? Why not? Olympics? Why not? Trade? As much as possible! Democracy? Tibet? Don’t ask.

Cuba? Ten million people. The size of Pennsylvania. It grows sugar and not much else. It will be a long time before Cuba exports advanced machine tools while an awful lot of its people seem to be dedicated to sneaking into the U.S. Why are we embargoing trade with Cuba? Well, here come the official answers: “It’s not a democracy and Fidel would like to be a military threat. And it’s a communist country, for crying out loud!”

According to the latest reports from all those Americans who have been there in recent years, Cuba is no threat to us in any way. Why are we so dedicated to keeping Cuba out of the market for American exports? Do any of us really fear Fidel Castro’s attack on Miami?

If Cuba might be nudged toward free markets and then free elections — as we claim has been the case in China — then why not? If we are comfortable helping to build up an economy that may be far larger than ours in a few decades, why are we worried about opening a tiny neighbor to our wares?

George Weimer, contributing editor