Commentary by Cynthia Tucker: Indeed, our isolation of the island is worse than useless: It gives Castro an excuse for his failed economy.

WASHINGTON — Way back in 1960, when Ed Sullivan could confer stardom, Lucy and Desi slept in separate beds and the Soviet Union represented an existential threat to the United States, the Eisenhower administration enacted an embargo against Cuba, a Soviet client that later threatened to aim nuclear missiles at our shores.

A few things have changed since then. "American Idol" now confers stardom; sexual congress outside marriage is a staple of prime-time television; and the Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of its perverse ideology and ceased to exist. But the Cuban embargo lives on, propped up by the peculiar and narrow politics of anti-Castro hard-liners in Congress.

Let's be clear: Fidel Castro is a brutal dictator who has imprisoned critics, repressed free speech and been accused of killing his rivals. Last week's announcement of a plan to release 52 political prisoners — while welcome news — does nothing to change his record. It's also true that Castro's central planning dictates have ruined his country's economy, forcing it into wrenching poverty.

But the long embargo has done absolutely nothing to change Castro. Indeed, our isolation of the island is worse than useless: It gives Castro an excuse for his failed economy. He has blamed the U.S. embargo for every misery visited upon Cuban citizens, from fuel shortages to food rationing.

The antiquated policy also contradicts our long-standing view that repressive governments may be influenced by the contact with democratic institutions that is provided by trade, diplomacy and cultural exchanges. If the U.S. can maintain crucial ties with China, the world's biggest and most powerful communist nation, why in the world do we isolate tiny, powerless Cuba? If we can normalize relations with Vietnam, why not Cuba?

Though congressional efforts to weaken the embargo have failed in the past, the House Agriculture Committee is making another attempt, and it has the backing of the powerful U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Last month, the agriculture committee passed a bill that would allow Americans to travel to the island and ease financing restrictions so that Cuba can more easily purchase U.S. agricultural products.

The recession and President Obama's emphasis on increasing U.S. exports may give the legislation more political heft this time around. Midwestern farmers want to sell wheat; Georgia farmers want to sell chickens; Alabama farmers want to sell soybeans. And Cuba is eager to buy.

For a time during the last decade, U.S. trade with Cuba was growing. But current U.S. policies make financing difficult, and Cuba has started to buy more of its foodstuffs from Brazil and Canada. In March, U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson,,D-Minn., chairman of the agriculture committee, said that current rules "have hand-delivered an export market in our own backyard to the Brazilians, the Europeans and other competitors around the world."

Nevertheless, hard-liners are already making it clear that they are not ready to give up the failed and foolish policy. U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., has vowed to block the bill in the Senate, declaring, "The big corporate interests behind this bill couldn't care less about whether the Cuban people are free or not — they only care about padding their profits by opening up a new market."

Menendez, born to parents who fled Castro's Cuba, may get his way this time around. But his views are losing ground among a younger generation of Cuban-Americans who are less inflamed about Castro and less interested in eventually returning to the island to take over.

Pragmatists also understand that Cuba is ripe for a non-hostile takeover. With a combination of trade and diplomacy, the United States is in a position to help the island nation make a peaceful transition from the Castro era. (Neither the frail, 83-year-old Fidel nor the 79-year-old Raul can live forever.)

Because of the island's proximity, its inhabitants are already attuned to U.S. culture. Unlike, say, Iraq or Afghanistan, the nation isn't riven by sectarian conflicts. And Castro's revolution created a literate population that could adapt to capitalist standards.

Why not invade Cuba with tourists and chickens?

Cynthia Tucker is a political writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a nationally syndicated columnist. She can be reached at cynthia@ajc.com.