I have just spent three days in Havana, where I had the opportunity to discuss Cuba's future with a wide range of people: street vendors, small shopkeepers, political opponents of the regime, religious leaders, university students and President Fidel Castro himself.

I had three goals:

To learn about Cuba's economic conditions and to discover whether a fledgling private sector exists.

To determine what role, if any, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce can play to spur the growth of enterprise in Cuba.

To assess the role U.S. firms might someday play in the economic development of Cuba.

I am more convinced than ever that it's time to open a new chapter in relations between the the United States and of Cuba.

Though Cuba is impoverished, beneath the surface an entrepreneurial spark has been ignited that the Cuban government has not yet snuffed out. Therein lies a small but hopeful opening for a nongovernmental organization such as the chamber to aid the creation and growth of a true Cuban private sector.

We do so mindful and respectful of those in our country, particularly in the Cuban exile community, who believe that contacts between us should be minimized until a complete change in government occurs. I disagree. Increasing contact now will speed this positive development, not slow it down.

Like most Americans, the U.S. Chamber disapproves of the political, economic and human rights policies of the Cuban government. We have said so in the United States, I said so repeatedly in an unprecedented speech at the University of Havana in Cuba, and I said it to Castro himself.

While the Cuban president made clear to me that he has not reformed his views or softened his ideology, in recognition of its crumbling economy the regime is now permitting certain activities and associations that were previously banned. Slowly, the process of change in Cuba has begun, and we ought to support it where we can.

It is a tragedy that, during one of the most exciting and dynamic periods of global economic expansion and technological innovation, the Cuban people have been left out. Castro, of course, blames the United States and its embargo. The embargo has no doubt been a hardship, and, in fact, well before my trip, the U.S. Chamber had gone on record calling for the lifting of the embargo against Cuba.

But more than any other factor, the lack of independent, private enterprise has held Cuba back. We now have an opportunity to help Cuba move to the right side of history, even if Castro won't.

As a nongovernmental, voluntary, private-sector organization, the U.S. Chamber -- with a well-established track record of operating American chambers around the world in all kinds of political, economic and diplomatic environments -- is an appropriate institution to undertake this delicate effort in the face of the continued estrangement of our governments.

And so during this visit, we agreed to build our relationship along two avenues. First, we will deal directly with the small new private sector in Cuba by forming a working group of independent Cuban entrepreneurs, through which the chamber can provide training and development programs. And second, we will work with the Cuban Chamber of Commerce and its state-managed member corporations.

Those of us who are concerned about the economic well-being and human rights of the Cuban people face an important choice. We can let them continue to suffer in isolation, with no guarantees that Castro's successor will be an improvement. Or we can nurture, through nongovernmental approaches, an emerging private sector in Cuba -- with the realistic hope that it will one day grow into the dynamic and positive force for change and freedom that it has been elsewhere in the world. It is time to try that new approach.

The writer is president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.