UNITED NATIONS – In yet another sign of the Obama administration's determination to turn the tide in the decades-old icy relationship with Cuba, the U.S. abstained from voting – for the first time in 25 years – on a U.N. resolution condemning the economic embargo against Cuba.
The U.S. always has opposed the resolution.
The move proved popular in the General Assembly.
The announcement by U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power ahead of a vote on the resolution was greeted with applause by its 193 members.
Power said the U.S. was abstaining because of President Barack Obama's new approach to Cuba, but she made clear that the United States "categorically" rejects statements in the resolution suggesting the embargo violated international law.
She also stressed that abstaining "does not mean that the United States agrees with all of the policies and practices of the Cuban government."
"We do not," Power said. "We are profoundly concerned by the serious human rights violations that the Cuban government continues to commit."
An abstention will effectively pit the Obama administration and Cuba with the world body against the Republican-led Congress, which supports the 55-year-old embargo despite the U.S. resumption of full diplomatic relations with Cuba.
Cuban-American members of Congress, including Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, both Republicans, and Bob Menendez, a Democrat, as well as Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, have assailed the Obama administration's decision to restore diplomatic relations, arguing that the Cuban government has taken no steps toward democratic reforms.
Rubio issued a statement shortly after the vote, calling the Obama administration’s series of steps to ease U.S.-Cuba travel and trade restrictions a violation of the embargo and an affront to the people of Cuba.
"The U.S. embargo against Cuba is codified in U.S. law and serves the dual purpose of denying the Castro regime money to fund its repression and giving us leverage to obtain concessions that lead to true and lasting freedom for the Cuban people," Rubio said. "Two years of the Obama administration's Cuba policy have proven this president puts his legacy ahead of the Cuban people's God-given rights, and he believes in squandering leverage in negotiations with the Castros, not in using it."
Administration officials argue that the embargo failed to push the regime of Raul or Fidel Castro to hold free elections or stop punishing political opposition, and that it was time to try a different approach.
The abstention would be in keeping with the administration's belief that the embargo should be lifted as part of normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba.
General Assembly resolutions are nonbinding and unenforceable. But the 24-year-old exercise in which the U.N. overwhelmingly votes to condemn the embargo has given Cuba a global stage to demonstrate America's isolation on its Cuba policy.
The administration had considered abstaining from the vote last year, but concluded it could not do so because the resolution did not reflect what it considered to be the spirit of engagement between Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro. The 2015 vote ended up 191-2 to condemn the commercial, economic and financial embargo against Cuba; it was the highest number of votes ever for the measure. Only Israel joined the United States in opposing the resolution.
Obama and Castro announced on Dec. 17, 2014, that they were restoring diplomatic ties, which were broken in 1961 after Fidel Castro took power and installed a communist government.
On July 20 last year, diplomatic relations were restored and embassies of the two countries were reopened, but serious issues remain, especially the U.S. call for human rights on the Caribbean island and claims for expropriated property.
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