US abstains for first time in UN vote against Cuba embargo

Cuba's foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez gives a press conference to present a government report on the US trade embargo, on Sept 9, 2016 at the Foreign Ministry in Havana.
Cuba's foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez gives a press conference to present a government report on the US trade embargo, on Sept 9, 2016 at the Foreign Ministry in Havana.PHOTO: AFP

UNITED NATIONS, United States (AFP) - The United States on Wednesday (Oct 26) abstained for the first time from a vote at the United Nations calling for an end to the US embargo against Cuba, more than a year after Washington restored ties with Havana.

The UN General Assembly adopted the annual resolution for the 25th time by an overwhelming vote of 191 votes in favour - with only the United States and Israel abstaining in the 193-nation forum.

"The United States has always voted against this resolution. Today the United States will abstain," US Ambassador Samantha Power told the assembly, drawing loud applause.

Washington's abstention was in line with calls from President Barack Obama for the opposition-controlled Congress to lift the decades-old embargo as part of a historic normalisation of relations.

The United States restored diplomatic ties with Cuba in July last year and Obama made a landmark visit to the communist-ruled island in March.

But restoring full trade and financial ties with Cuba would require legislative action by Congress, where the Republican majority has said human rights concerns must first be addressed.

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez welcomed the US shift as positive, but said the US government must take concrete steps that go beyond the "vote of one delegation in this forum."

"The blockade continues to be a massive, flagrant and systematic violation of the human rights of all Cuban men and women and qualifies as an act of genocide," Rodriguez said.

Economic damage caused to Cuba by the embargo between April 2015 and March 2016 - when Obama first met with President Raul Castro until his historic Havana visit - is estimated at more than US$4.68 billion, he said.

Over the past six decades, the damage from "this genocidal policy" amounts to US$753.688 billion, he added.

"There isn't any Cuban family or sector in our country that has not suffered from its effects," said the foreign minister.

Embargo restrictions have prevented the sale of US medical equipment to treat Cubans suffering from Parkinson's disease and blocked a deal by a Cuban pharmaceutical company that would have allowed it to produce drugs locally, he said.

This year's resolution takes note of steps taken by the Obama administration to ease the embargo, describing them as positive but "still limited in scope."

The measure calls on all member states to refrain from applying the embargo and to "reaffirm the freedom of trade and navigation."

Last year, the United States and Israel were the only two countries that voted against the non-binding resolution, but 191 voted in favour - the highest level of support yet for the measure at the United Nations.

Power recalled that the US policy aimed at isolating Cuba "was not working" and had instead isolated the United States.

"Abstaining on this resolution does not mean that the United States agrees with all of the policies and practices of the Cuban government. We do not," said Power.

After praising Cuba for sending hundreds of doctors to West Africa to fight the Ebola outbreak, Power said the United States and Cuba must continue to find ways to engage, despite differences.

"Today, we have taken another small step to be able to do that. May there be many more - including, we hope, finally ending the US embargo," she said.

The assembly has voted each year since 1992 to approve the resolution criticizing the embargo that was imposed in 1960, at the height of the Cold War.