Posted on 09/22/2015

For the first time, the United States may accept a United Nations condemnation of the US trade embargo against Cuba without a fight. US officials say that the Obama administration is weighing abstaining from the annual UN General Assembly vote on a Cuban-backed resolution demanding that the embargo be lifted. The vote could come next month.
No decision has yet been made, four administration officials told the Associated Press.  However, they were not authorized to speak publicly on sensitive internal deliberations and demanded anonymity.


But merely considering an abstention is unprecedented. Following through on the idea would send shock waves through both the United Nations and Congress.

It is unheard of for a UN member state not to oppose resolutions critical of its own laws.

By not actively opposing the resolution, the administration would be effectively siding with the world body against Congress, which has refused to repeal the embargo despite calls from President Barack Obama to do so.

The candidate

Presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, who is Cuban-American, virulently opposed to any rapprochement with Cuba and the go-to guy for a quote on any Cuban issues advocating a lessening of US tensions with Cuba, said that by abstaining, Obama would be “putting international popularity ahead of the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States.”

The embargo, he said, denies money to a dictatorship that can be used to further oppression.

The vote

General Assembly resolutions are unenforceable. But the annual exercise has given Cuba a stage to demonstrate America's isolation on the embargo, and it has underscored the sense internationally that the US restrictions are illegitimate.

The United States has lost each vote by increasingly overwhelming and embarrassing margins. Last year's tally was 188-2 in favour of Cuba with only Israel siding with the US This year's vote will be the first since the US shift in policy toward Cuba. Israel would be expected to vote whichever way the US decides.

The American officials said that at the moment the US is still more likely to vote against the resolution than abstain. However, they said the US will consider abstaining if the wording of the resolution is significantly different from previous years. The administration is open to discussing revisions with the Cubans and others, they added, something American diplomats have never done before.

Normalizing relations

Obama has urged Congress to scrap the 54-year-old embargo since December, when he announced that Washington and Havana would normalize diplomatic relations. The two countries re-opened embassies last month, and Obama has chipped away at US restrictions on trade and travel to Cuba, using executive authorities.

But the embargo stands.

The latest US easing of sanctions occurred Friday and was followed by a rare phone call between Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro. Pope Francis, who has played a key role in the rapprochement between Havana and Washington, arrived in Havana a day later. He travels to the US this week.

The White House said Obama and Castro discussed “steps that the United States and Cuba can take, together and individually, to advance bilateral co-operation.”

The Cuban government said Castro “emphasized the need to expand their scope and abrogate, once and for all, the blockade policy for the benefit of both peoples.''

An annual event

Neither statement mentioned the UN vote. Yet, as it has for the last 23 years, Cuba will introduce a resolution at the upcoming General Assembly criticizing the embargo and demanding its end.

Cuba's government had no immediate reaction to the report of the administration's new consideration.

An abstention could have political ramifications in the United States, beyond the presidential race.

The White House versus Congress

In Congress, where top Republican lawmakers have refused to entertain legislation to end the embargo, any action perceived as endorsing UN criticism of the United States could provoke anger - even among supporters of the administration's position.

As White House spokesman Josh Earnest noted last week, the embargo remains the law of the land. “We still want Congress to take action to remove the embargo,” he said.

The US officials, however, said the administration believes an abstention could send a powerful signal to Congress and the world of Obama's commitment to end the embargo. Obama says the policy failed over more than five decades to spur democratic change and left the US isolated among its Latin American neighbours.

It's unclear what changes would be necessary to prompt a US abstention.

Last year's resolution cited the “necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo” and took aim at the Helms-Burton Act. That 1996 law made foreign firms subject to the same restrictions US companies face for investing in Cuba, and authorized penalties for non-US companies operating and dealing with property once owned by US citizens but confiscated after Fidel Castro's revolution.

And the other side

A report issued by Cuba last week in support of this year's resolution doesn't suggest Havana is toning down its approach.

It says American efforts to ease the embargo are “a step in the right direction but are limited and insufficient in the face of the magnitude and scope of the blockade laws for Cuba and the rest of the world.''

The 37-page document says the embargo has cost the Cuban people US $833.7 billion - a number the US would never accept. Washington says the communist government has used the embargo as an excuse for its own economic failures.