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“We talk to the Russians. We talk to the Chinese. We have normal relations even with Vietnam. We trade with all of them,” Mr. Smith said. “So why not with Cuba?”

With just 90 miles of sea between Florida and Cuba, the United States would be a natural No. 1 trade partner and source of tourism. The embargo chokes off most commerce, and the threat of stiff fines keeps most Americans from sunbathing in balmy resorts like Cayo Coco.

Cuba is free to trade with other nations, but the United States threatens sanctions against foreign companies that ignore the embargo.

A stark example arrived off the coast of Havana last month: A massive oil exploration rig built with less than 10 percent U.S. parts to qualify under the embargo was brought all the way from Singapore at great expense, while comparable platforms sat idle in U.S. waters just across the Gulf of Mexico.

The embargo is a constant talking point for island authorities, who blame the trade ban for shortages of everything from medical equipment to the concrete needed to complete an eight-lane highway spanning the length of the island. Cuba frequently fulminates against the “blockade” at the United Nations and claims the embargo is “genocidal.”

Every fall, like clockwork, the vast majority of nations agree, and overwhelmingly back a resolution condemning the embargo. In November, 186 countries supported the measure, with only Israel joining the United States in opposition.

Also each year, Cuba updates its estimate of how much the embargo has cost it, using a complicated - and some say flawed - calculus that takes into account years of interest, the end of the gold standard and other factors. Last year’s estimate summing 49 years of sanctions was $975 billion.

Even some critics of the embargo call Havana’s claims exaggerated. They concede that the sanctions had a tremendous impact when first put in place but argue Cuba was able to adapt and benefit from relationships with like-minded allies like the former Soviet Union and Venezuela.

“There’s no doubt that the embargo is detrimental to the Cuban economy. It complicates international financial transactions, but more importantly, it limits Cuban families’ access to medicine,” said Geoff Thale, a Cuba analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, which supports ending the policy.

“At the same time, Cuba’s economic problems go beyond the embargo.”

President Raul Castro is in the process of allowing more private-sector activity, decentralizing state-run businesses, implementing agricultural reform and slimming government payrolls.

The United States actually does have significant trade with Cuba under a clause allowing the sale of food products and some pharmaceuticals.

According to the most recent information available from Cuba’s National Statistics Office, the United States was the island’s seventh-largest trading partner in 2010, selling $410 million in mostly food products.

That was down from nearly $1 billion in 2008, as the island increasingly turned to other countries that don’t force it to pay cash up front.

Many U.S. businesses would love to be allowed into the Cuban market, but an end to the embargo seems a long way off.

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