US opposes UN resolution on Cuba embargo, signaling Biden caution

By Rick Gladstone

For the 29th year, the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly earlier this week to condemn the Cold War-era American embargo on Cuba, with many diplomats exhorting the Biden administration to resume the reconciliation that was upended by former President Donald Trump.

In what was seen as a litmus test of President Joe Biden’s willingness to quickly reverse his predecessor’s tough stance toward Cuba, the United States opposed the resolution. During the last year of the Obama administration, when Biden was vice president, the United States abstained on the resolution for the first time.

The Biden administration’s no vote appeared to signal, at least for now, that it would move cautiously to undo Trump’s policy on Cuba, which remains a contentious issue in the United States, particularly in Florida, home to many Cubans who fled Fidel Castro and his successors.

The resolution denouncing the six-decade embargo is symbolic only, having no practical effect, but the vote, held since 1992, amounts to a tradition for critics of American policy to vent their anger and express solidarity with Cuba at the United Nations.

In the run-up to the vote on Wednesday, speaker after speaker representing blocs of countries that form the overwhelming majority in the 193-member General Assembly denounced the embargo as a cruel legacy of the Cold War and a humanitarian and financial disaster, reinforcing the isolation the United States has faced on this issue.

Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez of Cuba, who attended the General Assembly vote, said the United States under the Trump administration had used the coronavirus pandemic “as an ally” in its repression of the country, which he called “a cunning blow.”

Antonio Rodrigue, the ambassador from Haiti, representing a bloc of Caribbean countries, told the assembly that ending the embargo “would improve the prospects for peace, cooperation and development in the region.” Representatives from countries ranging from Azerbaijan to Vietnam expressed similar views.

Ambassador Vasily A. Nebenzia of Russia used the forum to criticize the American use of economic pressure, denouncing what he called “the sanctions war that Washington has unleashed.”

Rejecting the criticism before the vote, Rodney Hunter, the political coordinator at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, told other delegates that his country supported the Cuban people and was a significant supplier of aid despite the trade restrictions.

“Sanctions are one set of tools in our broader effort toward Cuba to advance democracy, promote respect for human rights, and help the Cuban people exercise the fundamental freedoms enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” Hunter said.

The General Assembly’s previous vote, in November 2019, was 187-3, with the United States joined by Israel and Brazil in voting no, and the remainder abstaining or not voting. The vote held in the assembly’s current session, which began in September 2020, had been postponed because of the pandemic.

The final vote was 184-2 — with the United States and Israel opposed, three abstentions and four countries not voting.

The United States always had voted against the resolution until 2016, when it abstained in a signal of the Obama administration’s move to fully repair U.S. relations with Cuba after more than a half-century of estrangement.

Trump sought to reverse that direction after he took office, and the United States resumed voting against the resolution during his term. He went much further, adding sanctions on Cuba and — in his final weeks in office — putting the country back on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.

The embargo can only be rescinded by Congress.

While a full termination of the embargo seems highly unlikely any time soon, Biden is still expected to gradually move away from Trump’s stance on Cuba.

Trump’s hard-line approach to Cuba’s communist leadership led to an array of restrictions on tourism, visas, remittances, investments and commerce, which have worsened an already poor economy. The pandemic compounded the problems, in large part by bringing tourism, a major source of foreign currency, to a grinding halt.

Cuba has sought to combat the virus crisis largely on its own, with some noticeable measures of success. The Cuban health authorities said Monday that their country’s three-shot Abdala vaccine against the coronavirus had shown a high rate of success in late-stage clinical trials.

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