For 46 years, U.S. policy toward Cuba has been defined by the economic and trade embargo against the Communist government of Fidel Castro. The election of Raul Castro to succeed his brother as Cuba's president has raised questions about the effectiveness of the long-standing policy.

For more than four decades, Fidel Castro has railed against the United States and the U.S. embargo as the chief enemies of the Cuban people. But it was ultimately his failing health and not U.S. sanctions that forced Mr. Castro to resign from office last month, allowing his brother, Raul, to be elected president. The transfer of power is the country's first in nearly 50 years, and may bring crucial changes on the island and abroad.

Jake Colvin is the Director of USA Engage, a coalition that advocates U.S. engagement with other countries, including its adversaries. "Fidel Castro has been this enormous obstacle to the United States having a real conversation about a rational policy for Cuba. It has been hung up so long on this one person," says Colvin, adding that the political changes in Cuba have raised attention across the United States about policy toward the Communist nation. The question is whether that attention will turn into political momentum for change.

U.S. Presidential Politics

U.S. Democratic presidential contenders have tried to use the Cuba issue to distance themselves from the Republican Party by criticizing some of the Bush administration's policies.

At a recent debate with Senator Hillary Clinton, Senator Barack Obama said that, if elected president, he would meet with Raul Castro to press for changes in the Cuban government. "I do think that it is important for the United States not just to talk to its friends, but also to talk to its enemies. In fact, that's where diplomacy makes the biggest difference," said Obama.

On the Republican side, leading presidential contender Senator John McCain has said U.S. policy should not change until the Cuban government accepts democratic reforms and frees political prisoners.

U.S. Policy

President Bush has shown no signs of reversing his position on Cuba. At a recent press conference, he criticized suggestions that a U.S. president should meet with Raul Castro, whom he called a "tyrant" like his brother, Fidel. "I just remind people that the decisions of the U.S. President to have discussions with certain international figures can be extremely counterproductive," said Mr. Bush. "It can send chilling signals and messages to our allies; it can send confusion about our foreign policy; it discourages reformers inside their own country." 

During his term, Mr. Bush has toughened policies against Cuba, passing a set of laws that restrict Cuban-Americans from sending remittances and visiting family members on the island. Cuban-Americans can send only 100 dollars per month and travel once every three years to visit immediate family members.

The 2004 restrictions have divided the Cuban-American community in South Florida, where support for the embargo traditionally has been very strong. Critics say it also hurts the goal of increasing the flow of information to the island in an effort to strengthen the push for democratic change.

Alvaro Fernandez, President of the Cuban American Commission for Family Rights, says the measures also send a negative signal about U.S. values. He cites the example of a Cuban-American in Miami who was raised by an aunt before fleeing Cuba years ago. "The aunt is by all rights his mother and he cannot visit her -- not even once every three years. So it is those things, which again, you know, we see as so un-American, to the point of [being] unconstitutional and most definitely definitely cruel," says Fernandez who is pressing for a reversal on the travel and remittance limits. But he says he expects little movement from President Bush as he nears the end of his term in office.

Pressure for Change

Thousands of Cubans come to the United States by formal channels or by illegal boat crossings each year, and many settle in the Miami area. Many of those recent immigrants are strong opponents of the family travel restrictions and other measures, says sociologist Guillermo Grenier of Florida International University. "Clearly, the ones who have come recently have expressed they they [i.e, the restrictions] have had more [of a] personal impact," says Grenier. "The reason being is that folks who left there most recently have their lives there; they have relatives there."   

Grenier says the growing number of recent Cuban immigrants is changing the demographic profile of the area, but that it may not translate into political momentum to reverse U.S. policies. "That growing proportion [of the population] does not vote, that growing proportion has the lowest percentage of citizenship and [voter] registration. So when you think of policy, you lose very little by creating a policy that restricts the desires of folks who do not vote anyway," says Grenier. 

U.S. officials acknowledge the embargo's impact has been limited and that the Communist government in Havana remains in power. Still, experts say it is difficult to abandon the policies, especially until Cuba's leadership agrees to change, such as freeing political prisoners and holding democratic elections.

Andy Gomez, a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, says, "From a diplomatic, foreign relations point of view, you just do not give something up for nothing in return."  

Experts say U.S. policy toward Cuba will not be a key issue in the upcoming U.S. presidential election, but that it will be a problem for the next president to face.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.