On Wednesday October 28th for the 18th year the unilateral US embargo of Cuba will be condemned by the United Nations by a nearly unanimous vote.
Last time the drubbing was 185 to 3, with our only significant ally being Israel, a country whose citizens vacation, invest heavily in property development, and manage the largest citrus plantation in Cuba.
The fact that only passing notice of our recurring diplomatic humiliation will be taken by American newspapers and political leaders says much about the insularity of the US from overwhelming world opinion, despite eloquent speeches by President Obama.
The UN General Assembly is not the only place our isolation is manifested. Anti-embargo resolutions have been adopted without opposition in the independent forums of the Rio Group, the Ibero-American Summit, the Heads of State of Latin America and the Caribbean, CARICOM and the Non-aligned Movement.
Supporting the annual UN process is a 117 page report issued by the Secretary General on the “Necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba”. This year 121 countries plus the European Union and 25 UN organs and agencies summarized their reasons.*
Opposition falls into three broad categories:
The embargo is seen as a violation of national sovereignty. For countries of the Western Hemisphere it is an anachronistic reminder of the interventionism of the Monroe Doctrine, and, in Cuba’s case, of the Platt Amendment.
Extraterritoriality is particularly galling for our closest allies in Europe, Canada and Asia, as US law asserts control over the actions of their corporations and banks and the sales of any products to Cuba that contain US sourced raw materials, content or technology.
UN agencies focus strongly on the humanitarian and developmental consequences to the people of Cuba, the collateral damage of an unsanctioned US trade war.
How will the Obama Administration respond?
Perhaps Ambassador Susan Rice will sound like her predecessors under George Bush, justifying the embargo on the grounds that Cuba does not have a democratic government or respect human rights. These are criticisms also held by many of the countries that vote against us, but are hardly in concert with the President’s own words to the General Assembly one month ago: “Democracy cannot be imposed on any nation from the outside.”
Political prisoners are an easy problem to resolve. US calls for Cuban reciprocity have already been met by President Raul Castro’s offer to do a classic cold war exchange of five Cubans the US has imprisoned on controversial spy charges for everyone Cuba holds as threats to its security.
Perhaps in a background briefing, the White House will say its hands are tied by Helms-Burton and other legislation.
However, our current Cuban-American ambassador to Mexico, Carlos Pascual, while Vice President of the Brookings Institution, co-authored an Op Ed in the Miami Herald which argued, “Whether you agree or disagree with the current commercial embargo, the president can effectively dismantle it by using his executive authority.”** For humanitarian reasons the Executive can respond to last year’s triple hurricane devastation by allowing sale and donation of construction, medical and agricultural equipment and supplies
In addition the President hasn’t even returned to the policies of the Clinton Administration by licensing travel for educational, cultural, religious, humanitarian, sports and other non-tourist people-to-people purposes. Such action embodies oft-proclaimed Obama values of dialogue and mutual respect, and among other things would have enabled the New York Philharmonic to perform in Havana as had been scheduled at the end of this week.
The Administration has permitted unlimited Cuban American visits and remittances but has failed in nine months to significantly liberalize travel for the rest of Americans or to modify the embargo. By doing so, the President would have given substance to his rhetoric of change in US relations with the Western Hemisphere and the world. He could have avoided or at least mitigated another signally embarrassing vote at the UN.