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UN General Assembly in One Voice (Almost) Rejects U.S. Cuban Blockade

The United Nations General Assembly on October 27 voted on a Cuban resolution calling for “an end to the economic, commercial, and financial blockade imposed by the United States of America against Cuba.”   Approval was all but unanimous: 191 nations voted in favor and two voted against, the United States and Israel. There were no abstentions for the first time since the voting on the resolution began in 1992.

This was the 24th year for such a vote and the 24th time for an expression of overwhelming approval. As it does every year, Cuba’s Foreign Ministry had earlier provided delegates and the international media with a comprehensive summary of the blockade’s harmful effects on Cuba’s economy and people. The report indicated the U.S. blockade violates both Cuban independence and international law. Taking inflation into consideration, its authors claimed that, over half a century, the blockade has deprived the Cuban economy of $834 billion.

Voting this year took place under new circumstances. The United States and Cuba in July re-established diplomatic relations after having exchanged key political prisoners. The U.S. State Department in May removed Cuba from its list of terrorist-sponsoring nations. Restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba have eased. Some U.S. financial institutions and businesses, especially in the telecommunications sector, now operate legally on the island.

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Although Presidents Raul Castro and Barack Obama on December 17, 2014, jointly announced their shared goal of improved bi-national relations, Cuba maintains that for normalization to occur the United States must end its blockade. President Castro made that point when he addressed the UN General Assembly on September 28. He also declared that territory occupied by the Guantanamo Naval Base must be returned, that U.S. efforts to build a political opposition inside Cuba must stop; and that compensation must follow for U.S.-instigated human and economic damages.

In the build-up prior to the vote, reports circulated that the United States would abstain. That approach would have been consistent with Obama’s announcement on December 17 and also with his pleas since then to Congress to end the blockade using power gained through the 1996 Helms Burton Law. Congressional Republicans opposed the idea of abstention, and Cuban diplomats refused to modify their resolution to suit U.S. tastes.

Cuban media critics of the blockade worked overtime during the same period. “The blockade is the air,” claimed one of them. He explained that since 1959 “130 radio stations sponsored by 43 Florida-based counterrevolutionary organizations” or by the U.S. government have been broadcasting to Cuba. The U.S. government’s “Television Marti” has been operating for 25 years. The International Telecommunications Union of the United Nations claims the radio and television broadcasts violate international norms.

Cuban spokespersons emphasized that education, accounting for 13 percent of Cuba’s GDP, is under the gun along with Cuba’s medical and financial sectors. The necessity to import education supplies from distant countries instead of from the United States leads to increased costs: $771,600, for example, between April 2014 and March 2015.

Critics focused on blockade manifestations newly evident during the past year. A Cuban reporter indicated that “from March 2014 to the same month of 2015, the U.S. blockade has cost Cuban agriculture … $451,520,000 dollars.” The U.S. Gen Tech Scientific company recently refused to sell gas chromatography units for use by Cuban researchers and medical diagnosticians.   In June 2015 Sigma-Aldrich Company refused to supply essential chemicals to Cuba’s Quimimpex Company and the Colombian Boiler Company denied Quimimpex pressurized containers it needs for shipping chlorine used for water purification.

In late 2014 the Commerzbank of Germany agreed to pay a $650 million fine to the U.S. Treasury Department because of financial transactions with Cuba, and with Iran, Myanmar, and Sudan. Similarly, U.S. authorities in October 2015 announced a $787 million fine imposed against the French Bank Crédit Agricole because of forbidden dealings with the same countries. New York District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. explained that “financial institutions must comply with sanctions against rogue nations,” like Cuba presumably. On the day of the vote, AFP news service described children dying of cancer in Cuba who need chemotherapy agents available only from the United States.

In the end, the United Nations vote marks one more year of the blockade hanging on despite wholehearted worldwide rejection, and despite majority disapproval in the United States. Analyst Sergio Rodríguez had already highlighted the contradiction between the General Assembly’s expected approval of the Cuban resolution and President Obama’s talk. It would have been better, he indicated, had the United States abstained or its delegates left the chamber. U.S. opposition to the resolution will be “an expression of the weakness that has been manifest in [Obama’s] recent foreign policy decisions.”

Well-known Cuban political writer Esteban Morales looked farther afield. He condemned “the historic messianic tendency of the United States and its high-handedness allowing [that government] to regard the rest of us as fools. They are so used to manipulating others … that they sometimes end up displaying a foolish diplomacy.”

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W.T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.

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