Old policy seen in a new light

It is an annual ritual: The United Nations today will vote to condemn the U.S. embargo on Cuba, much as the world organization has done for nearly two decades.

This will be the first time, however, that the call to end the policy will come with Barack Obama as president, giving rise to spirited debate on how his administration, having promised a “new beginning” in Latin America, is handling one of Washington’s most problematic foreign policies.

In recent months the Obama administration has taken steps to ease some of the sanctions that successive U.S. governments employed against Cuba. It removed restrictions on the sending of money and on travel to Cuba by Cuban Americans and opened the way for possible business deals between U.S. telecommunications companies and the island. Officials also opened dialogue with the Cuban government on immigration issues.

Cuban President Raul Castro and his ailing brother, Fidel, have generally been conciliatory during public speeches. And Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, who arrived in New York on Tuesday, said at a recent news conference in Havana that the U.N. vote on the embargo should not be viewed as business as usual.


“We deal with the theme every year, but this time we do it under what I would see as new circumstances,” Rodriguez said.

But Obama has said he will maintain the 47-year-old embargo as a means of leverage to press for political change in Cuba, and in September he signed the order that kept the sanction in place for another year. Even some of his supporters say he is acting slowly in unfreezing the tortured relationship between Washington and Havana.

“The Obama administration is moving very slowly and incrementally . . . but when you add it all up there has been a lot of activity, most of it under the radar but all toward greater engagement with the island,” said Daniel P. Erikson of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank.

Several factors other than Cuba may have influenced Obama’s pace, said Jennifer McCoy, head of the Americas program at the Atlanta-based Carter Center, where former President Carter has long advocated improving ties with Cuba. The crisis in Honduras, following a June 28 military-backed coup, has distracted the administration at a time when its top officials designated for Latin America have yet to be confirmed by the Senate.


The embargo has been condemned in the U.N. General Assembly by staggering majorities in recent years that reflect an increasingly isolated U.S. policy, and today’s vote is expected to be no different. The nonbinding resolution calls for an end to “the economic, commercial and financial embargo” imposed by the U.S. on Cuba’s communist government.

Last year, the 17th year the resolution was brought to the floor, the vote was 185 to 3 condemning the embargo, with two abstentions. The three: the United States, Israel and Palau.

When the same poll was first taken in 1992, abstentions actually won the day, followed by votes to condemn.

But much of the world has moved on. This year, the U.S. is alone in the hemisphere as the only country that does not have normal diplomatic relations with Cuba; El Salvador, the last holdout, restored full ties in June. The Organization of American States, which booted Cuba in 1962 as then-President Fidel Castro embraced the Soviet Union, voted in June to let the country back into the regional body (although Cuba has rebuffed the gesture).


There is growing consensus in the U.S. that the embargo has not achieved its goal of undermining the Castro government. The embargo cannot be lifted, however, without an act of Congress.

Among many Cuban American citizens, resistance to better ties with Cuba has softened. A recent poll among Cuban Americans in South Florida showed a strong majority in favor of lifting all restrictions on travel to Cuba.

Among Cuban government officials, Obama gets credit for rolling back some of the more harsh restrictions imposed by the George W. Bush administration, especially after a 2003 crackdown by Cuban authorities on dissidents and journalists. But they contend that Obama’s steps are timid and insufficient, taking policy essentially back to the Clinton years but not advancing beyond that.

“U.S. citizens elected Obama as president because he promised change. Where is the change on the blockade of Cuba?” said Rodriguez, the Cuban foreign minister.


In the Havana news conference, Rodriguez deflected questions about whether his government would take steps toward greater political freedoms, adding that the embargo was a unilateral measure and should be lifted unilaterally.

“It should be lifted because it is illegal, it is ethically unacceptable, it is obsolete, and it does not fit in today’s world,” he said. “It also should be lifted because that is the unanimous clamor of the international community.”

Cuban officials have repeatedly said they are willing to “dialogue” about anything but will not negotiate matters of “internal affairs,” namely political prisoners or domestic freedoms.

Raul Castro has announced a series of gradual economic reforms, as Cuba, like the rest of the hemisphere, suffers from sluggish growth and diminishing trade. But there has been no significant move toward political democracy.