IN the 37-year history of America's embargo on Cuba, few weeks may prove as pivotal as this one. Illinois Governor George Ryan scored a publicity coup - and drew fierce charges that he was undermining Washington - with a five-day mission to Havana capped by a surprise marathon chat with Fidel Castro. Although Mr Ryan made a relatively low-key departure from Chicago, his bridge-building trip soon claimed the national spotlight, thanks in part to criticism from the State Department. As the first American governor to meet Dr Castro since 1959, he has also raised politically advantageous hopes in his home state by ensuring local wheat farmers would be well-placed when the embargo is finally lifted. Making a thoroughly capitalist point, the ageing communist dictator told Mr Ryan his farmers had missed out on US$20 billion (HK$155 billion) in grain sales over the past four decades. 'The groundwork has been laid,' Mr Ryan said on his return. 'We leave here today knowing those bridges are firmly in place. I believe we have established a line of communication that will help all the people.' He also escorted back a severely ill seven-year-old boy with a blood condition that cannot be treated by Cuba'a once-formidable health system, which has declined in part because of the embargo. But all this was still not enough for the Chicago Tribune, the influential daily that backed his mission. 'Back with half a loaf,' it said, referring to Mr Ryan's failure to persuade Dr Castro, 72, to release four prominent political prisoners. Dr Castro insisted he would never dignify the 'criminal' embargo by introducing social and political reforms to please Washington. The appeal for the prisoners' release came during a roast lamb dinner at the presidential palace. Seven hours later, Mr Ryan left the table laden with drinks and with the country's famous cigars, which are contraband in the US. 'He just talks, talks, talks,' he said. 'It's tough, sometimes. You have to interrupt him. It was kind of exciting to have the opportunity to meet him, but I never forgot for a second that Fidel Castro is a dictator.' Neither did the State Department. 'We'd prefer that there not be a lot of high-level contact with Castro as long as he refuses to lift his embargo on the Cuban people,' said spokesman James Rubin. 'But if people are going to go, as a practical matter we think it's better to encourage them to focus on human rights than to stick our head in the sand and say, 'We'd wish you hadn't gone'.' While Mr Ryan's visit has buoyed talk that the embargo cannot last much longer, both Democratic and Republican sources insist there is little will for dramatic action. They point to a large and prominent Cuban exile community and strong Latin American representation on Capitol Hill. 'The overwhelming view is that as soon as Castro goes, so will the embargo,' a Republican congressional staffer said. 'There is little direct political mileage for anyone in Washington to cave in to Castro. That is the reality. It sounds tough but the embargo has lasted this long, so it can wait a little longer.' Asian analysts are comparing the situation to that in the early 1990s, when the United States came under stiff pressure to ease similar restrictions on Hanoi. Visits from governors and senators played a key role and eventually the embargo was lifted in early 1994 without radical political change but thanks, in part, to Hanoi's assistance in finding the remains of missing American soldiers. 'There was a romance and a history about Vietnam relations that Cuba doesn't have. This is all about Castro, pure and simple,' a Democratic Party official said.