For the 21st time in a row the UN General Assembly has overwhelmingly voted to condemn the United States' economic embargo of Cuba in the policy's 50th year.

"Cuba is not making those steps to the United States, Cuba is making those steps because internally Raul Castro understands that those changes are necessary for the Cuban economy to survive and go forward in this particular international context - but the US is one country that has refused to acknowledge these changes in Cuba ....The embargo is the longest lasting failure in US foreign policy history."

- Peter Kornbluh, Cuba Documentary Project

When the US instituted its economic embargo 50 years ago, the world was a very different place, it was the height of the Cold War and Cuba was a pawn in the stand- off between the US and the former Soviet Union.

In the decades since the fall of the iron curtain, the US has normalised relations with many old enemies but the stigma of Cuba and Fidel Castro have continued to persist as a bogeyman in the minds of many American policy makers.

The US is only 145km from the island nation and should be its natural trading partner but the embargo forces Cuba to seek other partners which authorities say makes it more expensive and difficult to bring goods to the island.

The Cuban government says that in 50 years the embargo has cost them around $900bn.

But Havana policy is gradually changing, Fidel's brother, Raul Castro is in power and a number of significant reforms have been introduced.

The size of the Cuban bureaucracy is being dramatically slashed and free enterprise is being encouraged on a limited scale.

"Tourism is keeping the Cuban economy afloat as is nickel exports, medical services exports, cigar exports - all kinds of small sector exports. The problem is that until the United States lifts the embargo their economy will never really grow."

- Larry Luxner, Cuba News

Recently the Cuban government introduced a number of limited reforms to its economic system. 

  • It is now easier for Cubans to travel abroad as citizens no longer need expensive exit permits 
  • For the first time since the 1959 revolution, Cubans are allowed to buy and sell their homes at prices they set
  • They are also allowed to open small businesses and hire workers
  • In 2011, around 350,000 people received licences to start their own enterprises
  • The government is also reducing bureaucracy and cutting the number of people employed by the state
  • So, by 2014, 1.8 million state workers, which is 37 per cent of the workforce, will lose their jobs

Last week, President Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate to receive the majority of the Cuban American vote which has historically leaned towards the Republican Party. 

In addition, the US government has also made it easier for Cuban Americans to visit the country and removed some of the hurdles to sending money to the island.

So as slow change is afoot, we ask what is the future for US-Cuban relations?

Inside Story Americas, with presenter Kimberly Halkett, discusses with guests: Larry Luxner, who edits Cuba News, Peter Kornbluh, the director of the Cuba Documentary Project at the National Security Archive; and Jose Cardenas, who has served in the State Department and National Security Council under George W Bush.

"Obama has been very careful in framing his initiatives towards the island that has changed policy under his administration from the Bush administration, as directly attempting to help the Cuban people quite apart from helping the Cuban government .... I haven't seen any evidence that there is going to be a jarring change to the bilateral relationship in the next four years."

Jose Cardenas, former US state department official

Source: Al Jazeera