Thursday, October 27, 2016

US abstention on Cuba embargo vote at UN marks turning point: Cuban expert

The United States broke a 24-year voting streak at the United Nations on Wednesday, by abstaining from instead of voting against a resolution calling for an end to the trade embargo against Cuba.

The vote marks another turning point in the US-Cuba relations since the two Cold War enemies announced in December 2014 they would work to normalize ties, according to Cuban political observer Esteban Morales.

"We finally got to a point where the US changed its annual vote," said Morales, underscoring the diplomatic progress made by the two countries in the past two years.

Still, Morales warned against a too-cheerful interpretation of the vote, saying it only reflected the US newfound economic interest in Cuba.

"We can't deceive ourselves. The blockade," as Cubans call the embargo, "is an obstacle for the White House's new policy toward the island and that's why (US President Barack) Obama has said from the beginning it must be lifted," Morales said.

The Obama administration's vote at the UN, he said, is directed at conservative US lawmakers, who control Congress and appear determined to maintain the outdated policy despite international condemnation.

"It is a strong message to the US Congress and to radical sectors that times have changed and a new policy towards Cuba is necessary," he said.

"If they want to reach a deal with Cuba, they must change the ideological and aggressive strategies of the past," Morales added.

Obama has taken steps to ease trade and travel restrictions on Cuba, but only the US Congress can fully lift the embargo.

For the first time ever, no countries voted against the resolution, and 191 countries voted in favor, while the United States and Israel both abstained.

Such resolutions are non-binding, but carry political weight.

Gathering outside the University of Havana, young Cubans watched the UN General Assembly vote on a giant LED screen, following the hours-long process as representatives from nearly 200 countries rejected the policy that has caused billions in losses over five decades, according to Cuban officials.

Many were surprised but pleased by Washington's decision to abstain after voting down the resolution every year since it was first submitted to a vote in 1992.

"The blockade is still in force, but this means there has been a change in attitude at the highest levels of the US government," said Raul Palmeiro, a 21-year-old law student and president of the university's Student Federation.

Most of the students described the US abstention as a historic victory for Cuba, but cautioned that it was meaningless without congressional action.

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez hailed the vote as a "positive sign" and said he hoped the change would be "reflected in reality."

Last week, US House of Representatives Speaker, Republican Paul Ryan, dimmed hopes that lawmakers might end the embargo on Cuba after Obama leaves office, saying he intends to keep the trade restrictions in place.

Havana should now urge the White House to push Congress to lift the embargo before the next administration takes over in January, said Morales.

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