By Jeff Franks
HAVANA (Reuters) - The 50th anniversary of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba on Tuesday was met with little fanfare on the island, where Cubans said it was a failed policy that had succeeded only in making their lives more difficult.
They said if the embargo was lifted, they likely would live a little better, but some said it also would increase pressure on the Cuban government to fix problems that for years it has blamed on U.S. sanctions.
On February 7, 1962 what had been a partial embargo became a nearly total one as President John F. Kennedy tried to step up pressure on Cuba's fiery young leader Fidel Castro, who at the height of the Cold War had aligned his country with the Soviet Union.
The Kennedy administration hoped the trade ban would disrupt the Cuban economy and undermine the Castro government.
Half a century and nine U.S. presidents later, Fidel Castro, though mostly retired, is still around, his brother Raul Castro is leading the country and the communist system they created remains in place.
But the embargo is still the cornerstone of U.S. policy toward the Caribbean island 90 miles from Florida.
The "blockade," as its known in Cuba, failed to achieve its primary objective, but has made things more difficult and more expensive for the average Cuban, said retiree Juan Jorge Castillo, 67.
"We know that that the (country) that embargoes us is a power and that the power could sell us (products) more cheaply," he said. "We have to go to other places and acquire them more expensively. The objective is to destroy us, to drown us."
Roberto Esteban, a self-employed vendor of Cuban handicrafts, agreed, saying Cuba's chronic economic woes are attributable to the U.S. sanctions.
"It does a lot of damage to us. There are many people here who think that's not the case, that it's the country, an internal problem," he said at his stand in central Havana.
"I don't think it's an internal problem. The blockade exists and it's doing harm," he said.
Communist Party newspaper Granma had nothing about the anniversary on Tuesday, but Cuban television news repeated the government's contention that the embargo has cost the island $975 billion over the years, a figure that many experts consider inflated.
The embargo allows U.S. sales of agricultural goods and medicine to Cuba and U.S. President Barack Obama has loosened travel restrictions to the island.
Many Cubans say the persistence of the embargo cannot be blamed solely on the U.S. government.
They believe vested interests in the Cuban exile community in the United States want it to continue for their own economic and political interest, and they say their own government finds it a convenient scapegoat.
"It's like it's a shield for the bad things they've done here," said vegetable salesman Rafael Garcia. "It influences in part what happens, but it does not determine everything."
"I don't think the embargo is killing us or doing as much as the government says," said Rachel, a teacher who did not want to give her full name.
"If they did away with the embargo, our government would have no one to blame for the way things are and we would have the possibility to say to the government 'now what are you going to do? How are you going to fix it?" she said.
Dissident economist Oscar Espinoza Chepe said the embargo had only served "to give the Cuban government an alibi to declare Cuba a fortress under siege, to justify repression and to (pass) the blame for the economic disaster in Cuba."
Embargo supporters in the United States say the sanctions still serve the purpose of pressuring Cuba to change.
"In addition to imposing economic pressure on the Castro regime and holding it accountable for actions against U.S. interests, the embargo is a moral stance against a brutal dictatorship," U.S. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida said in a statement on Tuesday.
"The embargo will remain in place until free, fair and transparent elections are scheduled, political prisoners are released and freedom of expression and the press are established," said Ros-Lehtinen, who is chairwoman of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee.
But Geoff Thale, director of the Washington Office on Latin America think tank, said in a statement it was time to move on from the embargo.
He cited economic reforms now underway in Cuba to liberalize the island's Soviet-style economy and said the sanctions were "excluding the United States from the real process of change that is happening" there.
"Sensible politicians ought to be pushing for greater engagement and dialogue between Cuba and the United States. Cuba is changing and we shouldn't spend the next 50 years standing on the sidelines," Thale said.