A car drives past a billboard that reads in Spanish; "70 percent of Cubans have been born under the Embargo," in Havana, Cuba. The United States economic embargo on Cuba has turned 50.
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 on Tuesday.
Supporters say it is a justified measure against a repressive government that has never stopped being a thorn in Washington's side. Critics call it a failed policy that has hurt ordinary Cubans instead of the government.
All acknowledge that it has not accomplished its core mission of toppling Fidel and Raul Castro.
"All this time has gone by, and yet we keep it in place," said Wayne Smith, who was a young U.S. diplomat in Havana in 1961 when relations were severed and who returned as the chief American diplomat after they were partially re-established under President Jimmy Carter.
"We talk to the Russians, we talk to the Chinese, we have normal relations even with Vietnam. We trade with all of them," Smith said. "So why not with Cuba?"
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.
Little was planned to mark Tuesday's anniversary, but Cuban-American members of Congress issued a joint statement vowing to keep the heat on Cuba.
Supporters of the policy acknowledge that many U.S. strategic concerns from the 1960s have been consigned to the dustbin of history, such as halting the spread of Soviet influence and keeping Fidel Castro from exporting revolution throughout Latin America. But 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."
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. But the embargo chokes off most commerce, and the threat of stiff fines keeps most Americans from sunbathing in balmy resorts like Cayo Coco.
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Cuba is free to trade with other nations, but the U.S. threatens sanctions against foreign companies that don't abide by its restrictions. 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 it for shortages of everything from medical equipment to the concrete needed to complete an eight-lane highway spanning the length of the island.