President Barack Obama and National Security Advisor Susan Rice at the 2015 Summit of the Americas
Today, the UN General Assembly will vote — for the 24th consecutive year — on a resolution condemning the US economic embargo against Cuba. While there is nothing novel about the annual vote, which consistently pits practically the entire international community against Washington, this year was supposed to be different.
The Obama administration was supposed to abstain from the vote, putting pressure on the Republican-led Congress to finally revise the 54-year-old sanctions package against the Caribbean island nation. Instead, in a last minute reversal, a government spokesperson confirmed last week that the US will once again vote “no” on the resolution — a move that will put the breaks on the US opening to Cuba and perpetuate a counterproductive policy that does more to prop up an authoritarian regime than promote democracy.
Instead of repeating past mistakes, Washington should follow through with its original plan and refrain from voting. America’s abstention would boost Havana’s willingness to cooperate and, even more importantly, constitute a major step towards ending a policy that undermines the national interest.
Until last week, it seemed at least possible that the US would abstain. It’s unprecedented for a state to accept a UN resolution condemning one of its own policies. However, the Obama administration seemed prepared to do just that — as long as Cuba agreed to tone down the resolution’s condemnation of the embargo and the economic destruction it has wrought. The diplomatic developments that followed were promising. The White House offered to discuss revisions with Havana and even agreed to ease sanctions after a rare phone call between Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro.
However, last Wednesday, a White House spokesperson announced that the U.S. would almost certainly maintain its traditional stance against the resolution because its current form still didn’t “fully reflect” the new spirit of engagement between the Cold War rivals. While Washington didn’t specify its exact qualms, the resolution’s bitter tone — including the allegation that the embargo has cost the Cuban people $830 billion — was no doubt a hard pill to swallow. Even so, the US would do well to abstain, tacitly accepting the more or less unmodified draft. Doing so would benefit long term regional goals of the US for several reasons.
First, abstention would consolidate gains made in the opening to Cuba, which started with last year’s restoration of diplomatic ties, and win Havana’s confidence that the US is serious about opening a new chapter in bilateral relations. This is not to say that a single vote could pave over decades of deep-seated mistrust, or that abstention would prompt Castro’s regime to stop blaming the US for a host of economic problems that owe more to internal mismanagement than American sanctions. However, abstaining would at least signal to Havana that the US is committed to cooperation, not stuck in an outdated Cold War mindset. Now that the opening to Cuba has gained some momentum, Washington needs to make clear that the U.S. prefers the possibility of progress over maintaining the dysfunctional status quo.
Second, although abstaining from Tuesday’s UN vote won’t put an end to the embargo immediately, it would put pressure on Congress to reevaluate the utility of this counterproductive policy. Since it was first initiated 54 years ago, the embargo has consistently provided Cuba’s communist regime with a scapegoat for its own failings to bring about economic prosperity. This is not to say that the unilateral sanctions — the longest in history — haven’t been crippling to the island’s economy, or that they were ever truly justified by the risk Cuba posed to the US. But it’s clear that the embargo has reliably allowed Havana to shield itself from criticism instead of creating conditions for political and economic change. Even after the fall of the Soviet Union plunged Cuba into an unprecedented depression, economic havoc has never sparked a serious backlash against communist authorities. While there’s no doubt Republicans in Congress will continue to support the embargo, an abstention from the UN vote would significantly up the pressure to consider a new approach — one that might improve, rather than diminish, chances of democratization.
Finally, the gesture of abstaining from Tuesday’s vote would win the US diplomatic favor — especially in Latin America — that would far outweigh the disadvantages of tacitly accepting Havana’s reprimands. Regardless of how the US votes, the UN resolution is unenforceable. Abstention would send a powerful message to left leaning governments across Latin America, from Bolivia and Ecuador to Brazil and Venezuela, that the Obama administration is committed to forging mutually beneficial relations throughout the region. Opposing the UN resolution yet again will suggest that Washington still views the region through the same Cold War lens that led it to support military dictatorships and exacerbate its economic woes throughout the 1970s-80s. It’s time for the US to rebuild trust with regional partners and signal its readiness to take a new approach towards Cuba.
In a perfect world, Cuba would meet the US halfway and tone down the resolution’s hostile rhetoric. Although these demands likely won’t be met, the U.S. should make the strategic decision to abstain from voting rather than vote no and attempt to save face. What in the short run might look like a show of weakness will in the long run prove to be a sign of strength. If the Obama administration sincerely hopes to open a new chapter in relations with Cuba, let’s hope it doesn’t halt the progress now.
Will Freeman is a senior at Tufts University, majoring in Political Science. He has previously worked for ThinkProgress and the Uruguayan El Observador.
Image Attribution: “PRIMERA SESIÓN PLENARIA, VII CUMBRE DE LAS AMÉRICAS, PANAMÁ, 11 ABRIL 2015” by Presidencia de la República del Ecuador, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0