UNITED NATIONS - For the 18th consecutive year, the UN General Assembly condemned the US economic embargo against Cuba. The 187 countries voting in favor were friends and foes, democracies and dictatorships.
But this was the first vote since President Obama took office, and everyone listened for hints of change. While the administration has taken steps to improve relations with Cuba, it renewed the embargo just last month.
The speech by Susan Rice, the American ambassador to the United Nations, was more conciliatory than in previous years. But there was no hint the embargo would be lifted unless Cuba allowed "political and economic freedoms."
When the embargo first came to the floor of the General Assembly, many European nations abstained. But then came the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, which imposed fines and other sanctions on foreign firms dealing with Cuba. In the ensuing years, the UN vote turned heavily against Washington, not only in Europe but in all of Latin America.
This year it was 187 to 3 votes with two abstentions. The United States, Israel and the Pacific island of Palau voted "no" while the Marshall Islands and Micronesia (also Pacific isles) abstained. The resolution is not binding but expresses the will of the international community. Cuba has been under a US trade and travel embargo since 1962, three years after Fidel Castro took power.
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Cuba's foreign minister, Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla said the embargo had prevented his country from obtaining needed drugs for adults and children, including those combating HIV/AIDS as well as equipment to detect cancer. The US government, he said, recently stopped the New York Philharmonic Orchestra from performing in Cuba. "The blockade is an uncultured act of arrogance," Rodriguez said. "How can artistic creation be considered a crime?"
"President Obama has a historical opportunity to lead a change of policy towards Cuba," the minister said, and at minimum could grant waivers to ease the embargo. While Cuba purchases agricultural products from the United States, he said it has to pay cash in advance and could not transport the cargo in its own vessels.
In response, Ambassador Rice said, "Here we go again. I suppose old habits die hard."
"The hostile language we have just heard from the Foreign Minister of Cuba seems straight out of the Cold War era and is not conducive to constructive progress. We will not respond in kind to painfully familiar rhetoric that we have heard in years past -- rather, I am prepared to acknowledge that there is a new chapter to this old story," Rice said.
She noted that the Obama administration had promoted family visits and remittances and had expanded the amounts of humanitarian items Americans could donate. It also resumed talks on migration, moved to establish direct mail service and enhanced the ability of US telecommunications and agricultural firms to pursue agreements.
"These are important steps and can be the starting point for further changes in the relationship," Rice said.
The isolation of the United States on Cuba follows a series of US initiatives in the United Nations, with engagement on disarmament issues, such as a proposed arms trade treaty, and human rights bodies. Gone is the embarrassing US stand on women's issues whenever family planning in poor nations arises.
But on Cuba, the lobby remains strong, even though polls show a split in the Cuban-American community.
Elena Freyre, executive director of the moderate Cuban American Defense League in Miami, told CNN after the vote:
"The definition of insanity is to do something over and over again and expect a different result. We are not going to get a different result. It's not working."