HAVANA — When it started, American teenagers were doing “The Twist.” The United States had yet to put a man into orbit around the Earth, and a first-class U.S. postage stamp cost 4 cents.
The world is much changed since the early days of 1962, but one thing has remained constant: The U.S. economic embargo on communist-run Cuba, a near-total trade ban that turned 50 this month.
Supporters say the embargo is a justified measure against a repressive government but critics call it a failed policy that has hurt ordinary Cubans instead of toppling Fidel and Raul Castro.
In the White House, the first sign of the looming embargo came when President John F. Kennedy told his press secretary to go buy him as many H. Upmann Cuban cigars as he could find. The aide came back with 1,200 stogies.
It went into effect four days later at the height of the Cold War, a year removed from the failed CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion meant to oust communism from Cuba and eight months before Soviet attempts to put nuclear missiles on the island brought the two superpowers to the brink of war.
Washington already had some limited sanctions in place, but Kennedy’s decision was the beginning of a comprehensive ban on U.S. trade with the island that has remained more or less intact ever since.
Supporters of the policy acknowledge that many U.S. strategic concerns from the 1960s have been marginalized, such as halting the spread of Soviet influence and keeping Fidel Castro from exporting revolution throughout Latin America.
They say other justifications remain, such as the confiscation of U.S. property in Cuba and the need to press for greater political and personal freedoms on the island.
“We have a hemispheric commitment to freedom and democracy and respect for human rights,” said Jose Cardenas, a former National Security Council staffer on Cuba under President George W. Bush. “I still think that those are worthy aspirations.”
“The embargo is a moral stance against the brutal dictatorship,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican and chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Rep. Albio Sires, New Jersey Democrat, added, “The sanctions on Cuba must and will remain until the regime allows the Cuban people the freedoms and rights that each and every person deserves.”
Critics complain that embargo makes no sense today.
“All this time has gone by, and yet we keep it in place,” said Wayne Smith, who was a U.S. diplomat in Havana in 1961 when relations were severed.