- Associated Press - Monday, February 13, 2012

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.

Kennedy announced the embargo on Feb. 3, 1962, citing “the subversive offensive of Sino-Soviet communism with which the government of Cuba is publicly aligned.”

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.”

Little was planned to mark the anniversary, but Cuban-American members of Congress issued a joint statement vowing to keep the pressure on Cuba.

“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.

“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.

The issue is seen as a political nonstarter in the United States, where every four years, presidential candidates take turns courting the Cuban-American vote in Florida, a key swing state.

President Obama has said Raul Castro’s economic openings are insufficient. He is unlikely do anything in an election year to risk losing support in Florida, which he won in 2008.

Even if he wanted to lift the embargo, the Helms-Burton Act of 1996 stipulates that Congress would have to approve any end to the trade ban.

Backers of the sanctions say it is as important as ever to maintain what they call the moral high ground, saying islanders will be grateful whenever change does come.

Critics cite the annual U.N. votes to argue that times have changed and the embargo is a Cold War relic that ought to be thrown onto the scrap heap.

“It’s no longer a matter of the United States leading a movement to isolate Cuba in the hemisphere,” said Mr. Smith, a staunch opponent of the embargo.