In an indication of how far they still have to go before relations between them are normal, the United States and Cuba clashed Tuesday at what has become an annual ritual of international condemnation of U.S. policy toward the island.
For the 24th year in a row, and by a wider margin than ever before, the U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to urge the United States to end its economic embargo on Cuba. Despite the Obama administration’s professed eagerness to do precisely that, the United States was one of only two nations to vote no.
Joined by Israel, against a 191-vote majority, the U.S. delegation dismissed the Cuban-sponsored resolution as failing to reflect the “spirit of engagement President Obama has championed.” If Cuba thought “this exercise” would move things forward between the countries, “it is mistaken,” said Ambassador Ronald D. Godard, senior adviser on Western Hemisphere affairs at the U.S. mission to the United Nations.
Administration officials had indicated in recent weeks that they were prepared for the first time to abstain in the vote, provided Cuba altered the wording. Cuba, an administration official said, was unwilling even to discuss the subject.
“Their argument was, ‘You haven’t lifted the embargo, so we can’t really change the language,’ ” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic conversations. “To run the same resolution you always run . . . seemed to us stuck in the past.”
Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro announced in December their intention to normalize relations, and in July the two countries reestablished diplomatic ties severed more than 50 years ago. The administration has made regulatory changes to ease certain aspects of the embargo — imposed in 1962 and strengthened in 1992 and 1996 — but only Congress has the power to remove it.
Despite Obama’s urging, and opinion polls indicating that a majority of the American public favors ending the trade sanctions, none of several pending bills to do that has been considered in the House or Senate. Two Republican presidential candidates, Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Ted Cruz (Tex.), oppose any action to improve U.S. relations with Cuba.
In a series of meetings in recent months, the administration has pressed Havana to loosen economic and political restrictions on the Cuban people to provide the U.S. side with signs of progress to press Congress for action.
The resolution passed by the U.N. General Assembly is not legally binding. But for years it has been a mark of international opposition to the embargo policy. Since the resolution was first voted on in 1992, the United States has never garnered more than three other votes against it, including the occasional Eastern European or Pacific island nation in addition to Israel.
Over the years, the resolution has consistently described the embargo as a violation of various international laws and principles and has expressed concerns about the damage it does to the Cuban people. It calls on “all states” to refrain from unilateral interference with the internal affairs and trade freedoms of other nations and asks them to “take steps necessary to repeal or invalidate” any such measures.
Each year, the resolution asks the U.N. secretary general to prepare a report on implementation of the previous year’s resolution.
The only change in this year’s version were two sentences welcoming reestablishment of U.S.-Cuban diplomatic relations, and “recognizing the expressed will of the President of the United States of America to work for the elimination” of the embargo.
For most of Tuesday morning, other nations, including U.S. allies, lined up to make statements against the embargo. Luxembourg, on behalf of the European Union, voiced approval of the resolution. India noted the irony of U.S. backing for the United Nations’ 2030 development agenda, which calls for the abolition of unilateral sanctions that inhibit free trade.
Russia described the embargo as a “relic from the past” and a “vestige of the Cold War.” Egypt called it “absurd and morally indefensible.”
Before the vote, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez spoke at length about what he called a “flagrant, massive and systematic violation of the human rights of all Cubans.” Listing U.S. medical exports that are off-limits to Cuba and fines imposed on banks and firms even in the past year, he said that U.S. and other companies are reluctant to trade with Cuba even in those areas the law allows.
“We should not confuse reality with wishful thinking or expressions of goodwill,” Rodríguez said of U.S. actions. “We can only judge based on facts.” Ten months after the announcement,” he said, there has been “no tangible, substantial modification.”