But now, some conservative Americans and hardline Republican members of Congress are just as likely to oppose the US policy limiting trade with the island.

As Congress voted down amendments to the policy last week, those pushing for more interaction with Cuba questioned how the embargo can endure.

"Will someone please explain this policy to me?" asked Dwight Roberts, the Texan president of the US Rice Producers Association.

Roberts was addressing a recent news conference in Havana after describing financial losses to thousands of rice growers after Washington's restrictions were recently tightened.

Complex rules

US food and agricultural products can be sold to Cuba on a cash-only basis under an exception to the embargo created in 2000.

But a new US rule adopted earlier this year makes Cuba pay for goods in full before the cargo leaves US ports, forcing the island to seek other markets and harming American businesses, said Roberts.

Roberts said that this year the association will sell less than a third of the rice it exported to Cuba in 2004.

"The policy just doesn't make sense," said Roberts, who visited Cuba in late June wth the US-Cuba Trade Association seeking normalised trade relations between the two countries.

The US views Cuban leader Fidel
Castro as evil

Critics say the embargo aimed at forcing a change in Cuba's leadership is outdated and has not worked. President Fidel Castro remains in power, and the nation is still communist.

Old policy

Kirby Jones, the trade association's president, likened the embargo, dating to the early 1960s, to a weighty, out-of-commission ship on a field.

"It's like a tanker that has been sitting there for 40 years," Jones said. "And you've got farmers pushing it, but it won't budge. It's entrenched."

US officials defend the policy, saying unfettered trade and travel to the island would prop up Castro's government.

The imprisonment of dissidents and restrictions on economic and political freedoms are also used to justify the embargo.

But critics ask why the United States trades with other communist countries, such as China and Vietnam, and say the policy hurts average Cubans more than Castro.

They also maintain the restrictions thrive largely because of support from powerful Cuban-American lobbyists and lawmakers in South Florida.

Cuban-American lobby

Many families lost property when they fled Cuba and hold Castro personally responsible. Several Cuban-American organisations focus on overthrowing his government, and four US Congress members are Cuban-Americans who fiercely
oppose the island's communist system.

"It [US Cuban policy] is like a tanker that has been sitting there for 40 years and you've got farmers pushing it, but it won't budge. It's entrenched"

Kirby Jones, 
Trade association president

"How can we think about easing restrictions against this monster when he continues to plunder and terrorise 11 million of our brothers [Cubans]?" asked hardline US Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

"The Congress should not be making life easier for the brutal Castro regime."

Two House members are even linked to Castro through family - the aunt of US Representatives Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart was the Cuban leader's first wife.

"This is a family feud that's been taken to a very personal level," said Pamela Ann Martin, a Pennsylvania-based trade consultant specialising in Cuba.

Dollars for votes

Some US policy critics say the Cuban-Americans in Congress apply extreme pressure to lawmakers who support easing the embargo - an idea Ros-Lehtinen rejects.

"We humbly and gently ask our congressional colleagues to vote with us and for freedom for the Cuban people," she said in a statement e-mailed to The Associated Press.

"We have no extreme pressure that we could possibly use. It is an absurd notion."

A list of legislators receiving money from Cuban-American groups was released by the advocacy group Washington Office on Latin America last week in a statement deploring the vote.

"Members of Congress voted according to the desires of a few Cuban-American hard-liners at the expense of their constituents," the statement said.

Changing opinion

The Washington group says opinion polls and newspaper editorials across the country show most US citizens support a change in Cuba policy.

Business and agricultural interests will eventually make their discontent be felt, said Jones, whose group includes agribusiness giants Archer Daniels Midland of Illinois and Cargill, Inc. of Minnesota.

Some Republican lawmakers, including Senator Larry Craig of Idaho and US Republican Jeff Flake of Arizona, are also pushing to lift restrictions.

"At some point [the administration] will have to look at the political price of going against several Republican, agricultural states," Jones said.