And Then There Were None

Washington Abstains Against Itself on Cuba at the UN

The UN Announcement

Right before Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez closed the first round of high-level diplomats speaking in favor of the annual United Nations General Assembly Resolution on the “necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba,” the Obama Administration’s top diplomat at the UN, Samantha Power, took the podium to deliver an announcement.  “For more than 50 years,” Power stated, “the United States had a policy aimed at isolating the government of Cuba. For roughly half of those years, UN member states have voted overwhelmingly for a General Assembly resolution that condemns the U.S. embargo and calls for it to be ended. The United States has always voted against this resolution. Today the United States will abstain.” The audience of diplomats, as well as guests in the visitors balcony broke into prolonged applause.

The 2015 vote had been 192-2 with only Israel voting in solidarity with the US. This year the Israeli UN Ambassador delivered a terse sentence – “Israel welcomes the progress in relations between the United States and Cuba and hopes this progress will lead to a new era in the region.” When the giant electric scoreboard listed the tally, Israel’s vote to also abstain was registered. So that was that, the vote was now unanimous.1

On July 20, 2015 Washington and Havana restored diplomatic relations after the US State Department had removed Cuba from its arbitrary, and in the case of Cuba, nonsensical list of countries supporting terrorism on May 29 of that year. President Obama visited Cuba March 20-22, 2016 and called for the ending of US sanctions. Nevertheless, the punitive enforcement of those sanctions continues almost completely unabated at the end of the Obama Administration.  US-funded overt and covert subversive “regime change” programs directed against the Caribbean island remain in place and continuing as is US retention, and occupation as a military base, of Cuban territory at Guantanamo Bay.

Until the William Clinton Administration gave to Congress the legal authority to eliminate US anti-Cuba economic sanctions, one of the provisions of the notorious Helms-Burton legislation signed by Clinton in 1996, this authority had been the legal prerogative of the Executive Branch.

The October 26 Washington Post reported that after the establishment of diplomatic relations the “Obama Administration said it was prepared, for the first time, to abstain in the vote, provided Cuba agree to minor changes to soften the harsh wording of the resolution. The Administration argued that President Obama had used his executive authority to chip away at many of the restrictions but that only Congress could fully repeal the embargo, first adopted in 1962 and strengthened in 1992 and 1996. Cuba refused, saying that as long as the embargo remained in US law, there was no point in softening the wording of condemnation.”

Cuba first introduced the Resolution in 1992. In the first years there was strong US pressure on other UN member states to vote no or abstain, resulting in merely large majorities for the Cuban-introduced Resolution, and many abstentions. But for some 20 years now the vote has been lopsided and overwhelming in support of the Resolution, with only an ever-shrinking handful of abstentions. In past years of her term, Power did not bother to show up for the Cuba votes at the General Assembly, fobbing off the job to a lower-tier US official who would read a statement of US boilerplate from his seat after the vote was recorded.

It’s Just Not Working!

Power in her presentation was necessarily defensive but still asserted, falsely, or at least contrary to the stated viewpoints of nearly every other speaker, that:

All actions of the United States with regard to Cuba have been and are fully in conformity with the UN Charter and international law, including applicable trade law and the customary law of the sea. We categorically reject the statements in the resolution that suggest otherwise.

It has been, of course, central to the positions of the overwhelming majority of UN member states, that US anti-Cuba policies are outside the parameters of “international law” regarding what is termed “extraterritoriality,” that is, the attempts, under Helms-Burton, to punish and sanction countries, business firms, and commercial entities outside the US that carry out economic exchange with Cuba. This in particular has been a central consideration for the votes cast in favor of the Resolution by Washington’s NATO allies (and competitors) in the European Union.

Power’s blanket embrace of “legality” with regard to “all” US actions against Cuba, viewed historically, was, at the very least, in extremely poor taste given the thoroughly documented record of US government-backed terrorism, invasion, industrial and agricultural sabotage, and subversion against socialist Cuba since the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959. US sanctions against Cuba were sealed tight by 1962 – in an economy then completely and oppressively dominated by US capital, including significant capital from US-based organized crimes families.

Nevertheless, putting aside this rather pathetic attempt to claim legal cover for US anti-Cuba policy, Power quickly got to the point with her very next sentence: “But the Resolution voted on today is a perfect example of why the U.S. policy of isolation toward Cuba was not working – or worse, how it was actually undermining the very goals it set out to achieve. Instead of isolating Cuba, as President Obama has repeatedly said, our policy isolated the United States. Including right here at the United Nations.” Note here that the political problem for Washington is not that US policy was wrong or immoral, but that it was “not working.” In short Power, following Obama, said we convinced no one and we recognize that.

Power went on to chastise Cuba for “serious human rights violations.” But the hollowness and hypocrisy of that standard line of attack, and how little it resonates in world political consciousness and reality today, was also evident in her subsequent formulation, undoubtedly parsed and edited carefully:

Let me be among the first to acknowledge – as our Cuban counterparts often point out – that the United States has work to do in fulfilling these rights for our own citizens. And we know that at times in our history, U.S. leaders and citizens used the pretext of promoting democracy and human rights in the region to justify actions that have left a deep legacy of mistrust. We recognize that our history, in which there is so much that makes us proud, also gives us ample reason to be humble.

The sentences referring to “a deep legacy of mistrust” and “ample reason to be humble” apparently refers to the historically indelible political albatross Washington carries from its interventionist record across Latin America, Central America, and the Caribbean. The record of supporting and propping up virtually every bloody military dictatorship and regime across the region in defense of US capital and the oligarchies of the large landowning and capitalist ruling classes across the Americas. (For a comprehensive list of US interventions in the Western Hemisphere since 1898 click here).

Cuba’s Moral and Political Authority in the World

Power had been preceded by speaker after speaker representing individual states as well as regional or other organized groupings of states such as the “Group of 77 plus China,” the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the Non-Aligned Movement, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), all rejecting US policy and expressing solidarity with Cuba.

The Ambassador from the Dominican Republic, speaking for CELAC said that the US “blockade is still a reality for the Cuban people” and called for the repeal of Helms-Burton. The Jamaican Ambassador, speaking for CARICOM said the “pernicious embargo” was an attempt “to bring about political change and this has failed…I hope this is the final time for this UN vote.” The Ambassador from China found it “regrettable that all past resolutions have not been implemented” and pledged that the “development of economic and social ties between China and Cuba” would continue to grow. The Vietnamese Ambassador stressed the common theme that while Obama’s restoration of diplomatic relations was welcome and positive, as was Power’s announcement, the US sanctions continue and must be ended. She closed her statement by reiterating Vietnam’s special friendship and warm relations with Cuba. The Ambassador from Ecuador called US anti-Cuba policies a “reprehensible example of power politics,” and a “shameful disregard of international law.” He also said the policy was “contrary to the best traditions of the US people, referring to “the people of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.” “The Cuban Revolution and its example persists” he ended. The Ambassador from the small Polynesian archipelago nation of Tonga, consisting of 169 islands and 103,000 people, gave particularly heartfelt comments: “We feel this injustice [of the US embargo] as a small island state.” He expressed his “strong personal feelings” when I think of “our students in Cuba” training to be doctors. The South African spokesperson referred to the “longstanding relationship of solidarity” between South Africa and Cuba and Cuba’s decisive role in the fight against apartheid. He also pointed to the 2800 South African students in Cuba, in medical and other fields. The change of government in Brazil after the dubious impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, which had friendly relations with Cuba, did not lead to any shift in the Brazilian state position. The Brazilian Ambassador reiterated Brazil’s clear opposition to the US blockade and all anti-Cuba policies. The Ambassador from the Russian Federation pointed out that the US anti-Cuba sanctions were the “most protracted unilateral sanctions in the history of politics.”

It was the Bolivian Ambassador who spoke most sharply and politically, asking that he be excused for going beyond normal “diplomatic protocol.” “I want to pay tribute to the heroic Cuban people. And in particular to Comandante Fidel Castro who just celebrated his 90th birthday. Fidel has resisted 11 American Presidents…Cuba has a special place in the struggles for the liberation of the peoples worldwide.” He proceeded to quote Nelson Mandela and Ho Chi Minh on the revolutionary internationalism of the Cuban Revolution. “Today we are voting for hope. Cuba is an example to be followed.”

As I wrote in a 2013 piece on that year’s UN General Assembly Cuba vote:

Is it possible to imagine any significant political issue in world politics uniting so many disparate entities often in significant conflict with each other — from the semi-feudal ultra-reactionary “Sunni” Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the “Shi’ite” Islamic Republic of Iran, from India to Pakistan and Syria to Turkey; “North” Korea and “South” Korea; Russia and Georgia, and so on across the spectrum from the most industrialized capitalist ex-colonial powers in Europe and Japan to their most “underdeveloped” ex-subjects in the so-called Third World?

And, it has to be underlined, that this vote was in defense of Cuba — a revolutionary socialist government ruling over a state where capitalist property relations have been overturned since the early 1960s and which has renounced nothing of its revolutionary legacy, heritage, and program even as it maneuvers and navigates in the reality of a disintegrating capitalist world order?

The restoration of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba is certainly one of the most popular policies – domestic or international – of the Obama White House. The truth is that for many years public opinion in the US has been way ahead of the White House, the Congress, and the “Foreign Policy Establishment” and has for some time favored lifting all trade and financial sanctions and legally codifying the right to travel to Cuba for US citizens and legal residents. This has also been true for some time for Cuban-Americans. It can be said that the Obama Administration felt comfortable implementing its historic shift knowing that the ground had also shifted within the US ruling class and its broader “public opinion” as registered in the liberal and conservative business, academic, media, and think-tank elite worlds, all of whom remain visceral ideological and political opponents of Cuban socialism.

In that sense, Power’s speech at the UN summarized not only an objective capitulation to a changing political relationship of forces in the world and in the US unfolding over a number of years, but also a relatively straight-up acknowledgment of the moral and political authority of revolutionary Cuba in world politics. It was certainly the most positive words ever spoken by a leading US official for public attribution on Cuba that I can recall.

“We also recognize,” Power said, “the areas in which the Cuban government has made significant progress in advancing the welfare of its people, from significantly reducing its child mortality rate, to ensuring that girls have the same access to primary and secondary school as boys.”

Cuba and the Ebola Crisis

In that vein, Power ended her remarks by praising Cuba’s selfless and inspiring role – perhaps decisive in the initial stages of the world response – in combating the outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in West Africa. It’s worth quoting at length:

In 2014, we were confronted with the deadliest outbreak of Ebola in our planet’s history. The most dire projections estimated that more than a million people could be infected within a few months. Yet while experts made clear that the only way to stop the epidemic was to confront it at its source, the international community was slow to step up. Many were paralyzed…[Cuba] sent more than 200 health professionals to the region – an awe-inspiring contribution for a country of just 11 million people [including] a 43-year-old Cuban doctor named Felix Sarria Baez, who was dispatched to an Ebola Treatment Unit in Sierra Leone. In the course of treating those infected, Dr. Baez came down with the symptoms of the virus – and he quickly went from being the doctor to being a patient. As his condition deteriorated, he was airlifted to Geneva, where, for two days, he drifted in and out of consciousness. He nearly died, yet miraculously he pulled through, and eventually returned to Havana, where he says he regained his strength by cradling his two-year-old son.

I’d like you to think, just for one moment, about what it took to save the life of Dr. Baez – a man who risked his life to save people from a country on the other side of the world. He was initially treated in the clinic where he worked, which had been built with the help of a U.S.-based NGO. From there, he was transported to a clinic run by doctors from the British ministry of defense. Then he was airlifted to Switzerland aboard a medical transport plan operated by an American charter service. Upon arriving at the hospital in Geneva, he was treated by Swiss doctors with a Canadian-developed experimental treatment. [Power did not add that if Dr. Baez had been treated in Cuba, he might not have been able to access US-patented medicines and medical equipment that had US-manufactured components.]

Look at all the nations that played a part in saving the life of that brave doctor – a doctor who, after recuperating in Havana, actually chose to return to Sierra Leone, so that he could rejoin his colleagues in the field, saving the lives of Sierra Leoneans. Dr. Baez and all his colleagues belonged to Cuba’s Henry Reeve Contingent – which responds to international disasters and epidemics – and takes its name from a young American born in Brooklyn, who at the age of 19 traveled to the Cuba to join the country’s struggle for independence, and gave his life in 1876 fighting alongside Cubans for their freedom.

When Dr. Baez returned to Sierra Leone, he was asked why he had come back after all he had been through. He said, simply: ‘I needed to come back. Ebola is a challenge that I must fight to the finish here, to keep it from spreading to the rest of the world.’

Power ended her remarks expressing the “hope [of] finally ending the US embargo once and for all.”

“Truth Always Opens the Way”

Power’s announcement was followed by a powerful address by Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez who referenced the Power announcement several times in positive terms. He thanked Power for her “words and efforts,” but also saying that, “what is important and concrete is the dismantling of the blockade, rather than speeches, press declarations, or even the vote of one delegation in this hall.”

Rodriguez began by going over what had been accomplished since the announcement that diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba would be restored. At the top of the list he cited the return of the three remaining Cuban Five revolutionaries from 16 years of US incarceration:

58 years of heroic resistance by our people are the basis for what has occurred. At this time I am thinking of my people, of Fidel, of Raul, of the young Cubans who have inherited this long, glorious struggle…Truth always opens up the way. Justice ends by being imposed.2

Rodriguez said a “dozen agreements rendering reciprocal benefits have been signed.” He then gave numerous examples of the enforcement of the US economic sanctions and their extraterritoriality.

The Cuban Foreign Minister pointed out that even the highly touted but limited Obama Administration “reforms” in areas like telecommunications and “aid” to private Cuban business and entrepreneurs, even with their openly stated political motivations and intentions, come up against the “blockade laws” that must go.

Rodriguez cited “one funny piece of news” that US visitors to Cuba can now bring back in their personal luggage Cuban rum and tobacco with “unlimited value” that are purchased in Cuba, although these same products – and many other Cuban manufactured goods and services, including state-of-the-world medical and biotechnological products –  cannot be sold from Cuba to the United States for US consumers to buy in the US. Nor is US investment in Cuba allowed. Cuban banking institutions are not allowed to open accounts in US banks and financial institutions.

Rodriguez underlined threats and intimidation employed against US, German, Italian, British, and French firms unable to sells drugs and medical equipment to Cuba for cancer-detection and treatment and Parkinson’s  Disease.

Rodriguez also looked at Cuba’s economic difficulties and challenges in the broader framework of “the unjust international economic order, the global crisis, the historical distortions and structural weaknesses of underdevelopment, the high dependence of energy and food imports, the effects of climate change and natural disasters, and also, we do not hide it, our own mistakes.”

He continued with an affirmation of the continuity of the generations of the Cuban Revolution:

In 1959 we rid ourselves of US imperialism, and the dictatorship it imposed on us…Cuba is a truly independent country because it achieved its independence on its own and has defended and will continue to defend it at the price of the greatest sacrifices and risks…While Cuban youth  resemble their times more than they resemble their parents, the Cuban youth are as patriotic and anti-imperialist as their parents and grandparents…We will struggle to build a sovereign, independent, socialist, democratic, prosperous, and sustainable nation. We will never go back to capitalism.

Rodriguez ended by thanking “governments, peoples, parties, and social movements for their support for the abolition of the US blockade ending his address by “conveying our sincere gratitude to the US people for their ever growing support for this lofty purpose.”

Politically the US blockade seems to be stumbling and crumbling, but it has not finally collapsed. The contradictions in US policy registered in the US abstention at the UN are bound to be revisited by the US government as a whole – White House and Congress – in the next period after the results of the 2016 Presidential and Congressional elections in the US are determined. Several pieces of legislation that would end or ameliorate US sanctions have been blocked in the last years of the Obama Administration. Nothing, of course, is predetermined and the volatility of world politics and continued world capitalist stagnation and depression guarantees the emergence in world, Latin American, and US politics of events and issues, struggles, battles, and wars, that will impact on US-Cuban relations.

But what is certain is that there has never been greater space or openings for opponents of Washington’s anti-Cuba sanctions and political hostility to advance the independent struggle to end them and fight for the full normalization of US-Cuban relations and bring that cause to the developing mass struggles inside the United States that are bound to intensify and deepen in the coming years.

  1. Although formal diplomatic relations, broken in 1973, have not yet been restored between Tel Aviv and Havana, there have been no sanctions between the two states. Israel has significant two-way economic trade and commercial relations with Cuba and there is fully legal travel from each country to the other. There has been Israeli-based capital investment in important Cuban projects and industries including irrigation technology, office towers, and agricultural production. []
  2. The Cuban Five were monitoring the activities of Cuban-American counter-revolutionary organizations with clear histories of anti-Cuban terrorist violence. Antonio Guerrero, Ramon Labanino, Fernando Gonzalez, Gerardo Hernandez, and Rene Gonzalez were arrested and framed up in 1998 under the auspices of the Clinton White House and Department of Justice in a notoriously biased and unfair trial in Miami, Florida. They were sentenced to ridiculously long prison sentences in a case that drew worldwide outrage and produced considerable world and US pressure on successive US Administrations in Washington. The case of the Cuban Five, and the release of the three remaining Cuban Five prisoners, was a decisive factor in allowing the establishment of diplomatic relations to proceed. []
Ike Nahem is a retired Amtrak Locomotive Engineer and Teamsters Union member. A longtime anti-imperialist, socialist, and Cuba solidarity activist and leader, Ike is a founder and organizer for the New York-New Jersey Cuba Si Coalition, a member of the US National Network on Cuba, and a central organizer of the forthcoming March 18-20 International US-Cuba Normalization Conference in New York City. He is the author of many published, widely circulated essays online including The Life of Fidel Castro: A Marxist Appreciation and To the Memory of Malcolm X: Tribute to a Revolutionary. Contact Ike at ikenahem@gmail.com. Read other articles by Ike.