US-Cuba Relations Remain Frosty at United Nations

On Tuesday, the United States once again voted against the U.N. resolution, submitted every year by Havana, which criticized its economic embargo against Cuba and called for it to be lifted after being in place for 54 years. The international community believes that this coercive measure is unlawful due to the direct impact of the embargo on the well-being of the Cuban people. Havana insists that an end to the blockade would set the pace of furthering the process of normalizing relations with Washington, which began on Dec. 17.

The overwhelming result of the U.N. vote once again highlights that the U.S. is now more isolated than ever before on an issue that not even the Obama administration wants to defend. Over the past few months, the U.S. president has repeatedly called for an end to the embargo, but this is a step that only the U.S. Congress can take. The resolution on “the necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial blockade imposed against Cuba” was backed by 191 countries — a near unanimous vote. The U.S. was supported only by Israel in opposing the text. There were no abstentions.

The U.S. believes that the text adopted “falls short of reflecting the significant steps that have been taken, and the spirit of engagement” that emerged 10 months ago, and as such is dismayed at the tabling of a nearly identical resolution to years past. The U.S. Representative to the U.N. Ronald Godard insisted that normalization is a process that will require years of dedication and perseverance. “If Cuba thinks this exercise will help move things forward, it is mistaken,” he said.

When the Cuban Minister for Foreign Affairs Bruno Rodríquez Parilla tabled the resolution, he pointed out that even Obama himself has recognized that “the embargo has failed.” “[The blockade] is obsolete, [it] has not met the originally envisaged goals and causes damages to the Cuban people and isolation to the U.S. government,” he added. He also stated that the measures taken to ease trade and travel restrictions with the island since January, although positive, have only modified the embargo in a very limited way.

He warned that “we should not confuse reality with wishful thinking, or expressions of goodwill,” whilst citing examples of the trade restrictions imposed by the U.S. Cuba insists that the lifting of the embargo “will be the essential element that will give meaning to what has been proposed and shall set the pace towards normalization.” As a result, the minister urged President Obama to go further with the executive orders he has at his disposal to alleviate the impact of the embargo.

This is the 24th year that the U.N. General Assembly has voted on the resolution condemning the U.S. unilateral embargo. Despite resuming diplomatic relations with Havana in December, Washington’s vote against the resolution again has been viewed as contradictory. But [the U.S.] could not support a resolution that goes against its own laws.

U.S. organizations in support of lifting the embargo, such as Engage Cuba, believe that Tuesday’s vote in New York should serve as a wake-up call for both Washington and Havana.

The vote demonstrates that “our policy aimed at isolating Cuba has ironically isolated us,” said James Williams, the president of Engage Cuba. Williams emphasized that “both parties in Congress should pay attention to the U.N. vote today. While other global issues expose deep differences among nations, on this topic they are nearly unanimous: It’s time to end the U.S. embargo on Cuba.” Nevertheless, Williams also believes that “Cuba too must recognize that it needs to look to the future and not be stuck fighting the battles of a pre-December 17th past.”

However, Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas — a think tank equally in favor of the embargo’s removal — has called for people to not attach too much importance to the vote, which she described as “essentially a hiccup.”

“It reminds us of the ongoing damage done to Cuba and the U.S. by keeping the embargo in place, but it also tells us that the future is about diplomatic recognition and engagement,” she added. In July, the two countries restored diplomatic relations and opened their respective embassies. At the same time, President Obama’s administration has been adopting a series of executive orders to eliminate some of the trade and travel restrictions with Cuba. On the eve of the plenary of the General Assembly, word began circulating that the U.S. was considering the unprecedented move of abstaining from the vote, something that ultimately did not happen.

These resolutions are non-binding for member states, but they are politically symbolic, particularly at a key moment in the process of normalization. The U.S. has also been left totally isolated in the vote. Last year, the only other country to support the U.S. was Israel, compared with the 188 countries that opposed the economic embargo. Only the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau abstained. Cuba’s president, Raúl Castro, used his stay in New York in September during the debates at the U.N. General Assembly to restore diplomatic relations with the Marshall Islands and Palau, and thus the change in votes in support of Havana was somewhat expected.

For its part, an abstention from the U.S. would have placed even more pressure on the U.S. Congress to take steps toward alleviating the effects of the blockade. Castro made it clear during his speech to the U.N. that the lifting of the embargo is a precondition in order to sustain the new dynamic in bilateral relations.

Those countries that participated in the debate prior to the vote welcomed the steps being taken to bring the two Caribbean neighbors together. However, they again condemned the severe consequences caused as a result of the embargo on the lives of ordinary Cubans, and the direct and indirect damage on all sectors of its economy. As a result, they consider that the embargo’s continued implementation is unjustifiable.

The representatives of the Non-Aligned Movement, the G77 plus China, and Mercosur noted that the restoration of diplomatic relations is a “significant” first step, but at the same time, they also condemned the fact that nothing has changed regarding its implementation, and the fact that sanctions have only intensified. “The U.S. should stop trying to be the world’s police force,” added the Venezuelan representative.

Before the process of normalizing relations began almost a year ago, Washington had defended the measure on the grounds that it was necessary in order to help the Cuban people to freely exercise their rights and freedoms, and to decide their own future. Washington had also claimed that the embargo was being used by Havana to divert attention away from the real problems facing ordinary Cubans, rather than admitting that its policies had failed.

The resolution serves only to condemn the embargo’s impact on Cuban society and its economy. The U.N. General Assembly emphasized the impact that extra-territorial laws are having on other countries that want to interact with Cuba as a result of the restrictions on free trade, such as the Helms-Burton Act, which reinforced the embargo against Cuba.

For this reason, the U.N. believes that the embargo is a violation of international law and urged that “necessary measures” be taken by the U.S. to repeal this law as soon as possible. In this regard, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States also considers that the Obama administration “has room” to be able to end the blockade without waiting for Congress, and in so doing, complying with the principles of the U.N. Charter.

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