When the GOP candidates hit the Florida campaign trail, three out of the four remaining presidential hopefuls took turns pledging to tighten sanctions against Cuba. 

In a Jan. 26 televised debate, Rick Santorum blasted President Obama for “siding with the leftists” in Latin America. Mitt Romney said he would use every resource short of invasion to oust the Castros. Newt Gingrich conjured up images of a “Cuban Spring” facilitated by the United States.

Only the libertarian Ron Paul, unconcerned with competing for the blessing of the anti-Castro, Cuban American establishment in South Florida, advocated reestablishing diplomatic and commercial ties with the Communist holdout.

While the GOP candidates tried to differentiate themselves from Obama and appeal to anti-Castro voters in South Florida, the changes they proposed represent only minor tweaks to a foreign policy defined by trade sanctions that marked their 50th anniversary on Tuesday. 

On Feb. 7, 1962, John F. Kennedy slapped Cuba with trade sanctions for nationalizing U.S. companies and allying with the Soviet Union. U.S. officials concretized the policy into a full embargo the following year.

Regardless of who wins the presidency in the 2012 elections, analysts say the embargo will remain the defining feature of U.S.-Cuban relations for the near future.

For half a century, the policy has dealt a hard blow to Cuba’s economy, without succeeding in its goal to force the Communist government out of power.

The embargo’s durability doesn’t just owe to presidential politics. The 1992 Cuban Democracy Act conditions the lifting of the embargo on Cuba’s holding of free elections and tolerating political opposition.

“It requires an act of Congress to change, but that ain’t going to happen any time soon,” Chris Sabatini, policy director of the Americas Society, said in a telephone interview, referring to the embargo.

Julia Sweig, Director of Latin American Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know,” also said “bureaucratic inertia and political queasiness” make it unlikely that U.S. politicians will try to change the embargo—particularly in an election year in which the Cuban-American anti-Castroites of South Florida will play an important role.  

The Communist Party’s smooth transition to a post-Fidel Cuba in which his brother Raul Castro is liberalizing the state-run economy while maintaining one-party rule also keeps the embargo from becoming a priority for U.S. policymakers.

“Cuba under Raul Castro is very stable. There’s no national security or foreign policy crisis,” Sweig says. “It becomes easier to just tread water and keep doing the same thing.”

The policy survives despite the fact that most of the world wants the United States to change course. 

Every year since 1991, the Cuban government has proposed a nonbinding resolution to the U.N. General Assembly condemning the embargo. Last year, the measure sailed through by a vote of 186 to 2, with only the United States and Israel opposing it. (Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau abstained.)

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Within the United States, public opinion favors reestablishing diplomatic relations with Cuba, while the embargo itself remains controversial. A poll released by Angus Reid on Monday found two-thirds favor reestablishing diplomatic ties, while only 51 percent supported ending the embargo.  

Cuban Americans remain slightly more wary of an opening, though generational change and the influx of immigrants born after the revolution has dampened the aggressive anti-Castroism that once characterized the community. 

A Florida International University poll of Cuban Americans conducted in September of last year found that 57 percent favored removing travel restrictions to the island for all Americans and 58 percent supported reestablishing diplomatic relations. By contrast, 56 percent of Cuban Americans said they still supported the trade embargo, even though 80 percent said they did not believe the policy worked well.

Francisco Hernandez, the president of the Cuban American National Foundation, explained why Cuban-Americans may hold seemingly contradictory views about the sanctions.

Hernandez considers the embargo a failure. 

Fifty years after beginning to apply sanctions, the Castros remain in power. Though the embargo often pushes foreign companies to choose between doing business with the United States or with Cuba, Hernandez says the embargo remains ineffective because other countries do not participate and because some companies manage to obtain waivers allowing them to do business in Cuba.

“The embargo may be the greatest propaganda tool they’ve ever had,” Hernandez said, referring to the Castros.

Regardless, he said the United States should maintain the embargo, unless Cuba holds elections and respects the rights of political dissidents, as demanded by the Cuban Democracy Act. 

“The trade off is simple,” Hernandez said. “Free political prisoners and give the Cuban people a chance to elect the people who govern them.”

Since taking office, Obama has used executive authority to relax some restrictions. The changes allowed Cuban Americans to travel freely to the island, increased the amount of remittances U.S. citizens can send, and made it easier for Americans to visit for educational or cultural reasons.

Some viewed the changes as the first steps toward a larger diplomatic and commercial opening with Cuba, but the process was derailed when Cuban authorities arrested USAID contractor Alan Gross in Dec. 2009.

USAID programs are illegal in Cuba because the U.S. government advocates regime change on the island. A Cuban court sentenced Gross to 15 years in prison in March of last year after finding him guilty of attempting to undermine Cuban sovereignty.

The Gross conviction drew fire from Cuban American Congress members, including House Foreign Relations Committee Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), who faulted the Obama administration for relaxing Cuba policy without winning concessions. Since then, U.S.-Cuban relations have remained at a standstill.

Analysts differ in their opinions about why the Cuban government arrested Gross and sentenced him so harshly.

Sweig said the Castro government probably never thought Obama intended to lift the embargo. Instead, Cuban officials likely arrested Gross in order to bring attention to U.S. funding of pro-democracy programs that are prohibited on the island, she said.

Sweig did not think the Gross decision indicated Cuban disinterest in normalizing trade relations.

“If we were to put on the table a major framework for political dialogue, the Cubans would be at the table tomorrow,” Sweig said. “We haven’t done that yet.”

But the Gross episode left others thinking that Cuban officials may not want to end the embargo—at least not all at once. 

“The ball is really in the Cuban court right now and they may not want to play it,” Sabatini said, noting that an end to the sanctions would suddenly inundate the long isolated island with U.S. tourists and investment dollars that Cuban officials may find disruptive.  

Cuban officials have used the constant crisis caused by the embargo as a traditional excuse to explain the country’s poor economic performance and to justify the curtailment of civil rights, according to Arturo Lopez-Levy, a lecturer at Denver University and co-author of the book “Raul Castro and the New Cuba.”

“They want to avoid any destabilizing effects,” Lopez-Levy said, referring to the Castro government, which is implementing Cuba’s transition to a mixed economy, while maintaining a one-party state. “They fear even a positive shock, because they think it could take them off the path of stability, and order is their main concern.”

In the end, it may be pressure groups rather than politicians who pave the way for an end to the half-century old trade sanctions. In the coming weeks, Cuba will begin exploring off-shore for oil—a development Lopez Levy says is “potentially a game changer.”  

“Once the famers’ lobby was mobilized in 1998, in just two years they made an important change to the embargo regulations,” Lopez Levy said, referring to the Trade Sanctions Reform Act passed in Oct. 2000. “If they discover oil, a new business lobby will emerge (in the United States) to challenge the embargo.”  

U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, a Cuban-American Democrat from New Jersey who has consistently opposed loosening the embargo, remains confident that the restrictions will remain in place as long as conditions in Cuba stay the same.

“There have always been pressure groups more interested in the color of green than the essence of freedom,” Menendez said, referring to pressure groups such as the agricultural lobby. “Those efforts have existed and they have been rebuffed.”

Follow Roque Planas at @RoqPlanas

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