U.S. and Cuba use United Nations stage to launch verbal attacks against each other

The 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly considered a resolution Wednesday on the “necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba.”
The 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly considered a resolution Wednesday on the “necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba.” UN Photo

Saying that Cuba has used the U.S. embargo against the island as a “shiny object to distract the world” from its own failures, the United States bucked the sentiment in the United Nations General Assembly Wednesday and voted against a resolution condemning the embargo.

The General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to condemn the embargo, but reflecting the Trump administration’s new harder line on Cuba, the United States voted once again to reject the nonbinding resolution. It was its 25th no vote on the resolution, which has come up every year since 1991.

The final vote was 191 in favor with two no votes by the United States and Israel, which traditionally votes with the U.S.

The renewed hostility between Cuba and the United States was on full display as Nikki Haley, the U.S. representative to the United Nations, called the long-standing debate on the embargo “political theater,” and said Cuba “is sending the warped message to the world that the sad state of its economy, the oppression of its people, and the export of its destructive ideology are not its fault.”

United Nations General Assembly
U.S. United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley address the U.N. Security Council in September. The United States cast a no vote on a resolution condemning the embargo on Wednesday. Bebeto Matthews AP

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez used more than half of his speech to take umbrage at what he called Haley’s “offensive, interfering statements,” condemn the Trump administration’s Cuba policy, and correct what he said were historical errors in Haley’s remarks.

“The United States, where flagrant violations of human rights are committed, hasn’t the slightest moral authority to criticize Cuba,” he said.

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez speaks during the United Nations General Assembly session that considered a resolution condemning the U.S. embargo against the island. The vote was 191-2 in favor of the resolution. Cia Pak UN Photo

For 26 years, Cuba has introduced the resolution calling for the immediate end of the U.S. embargo against the island, and for every year except 2016, the United States voted to reject the resolution. Last year the Obama administration directed its representative to abstain from the vote, reflecting the rapprochement between the two countries that began on Dec. 17, 2014. Israel also abstained in 2016, making the final vote 191 in favor with two abstentions.

In switching its vote last year away from a no, the Obama administration said rather than isolating Cuba, the embargo had served to isolate the United States from the rest of the world.

Recommendations announced by anti-embargo senators include allowing individual people-to-people travel, lifting restrictions on remittances and lifting limitations on bank transactions for Cubans who open U.S. bank accounts.

But Haley said that the United States would prefer to be isolated, rather than not stand up for the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the Cuban people.

For 55 years, she said, Cuba has used the embargo “as a shiny object to distract the world’s attention from the destruction it has inflicted on its own people and on others in the Western Hemisphere. Today the crime is the Cuban government’s continued repression of its people and failure to meet even the minimum requirements of a free and just society,” she said. “Our response has been to stand with the Cuban people and their right to determine their own future.”

Then Halley said she wanted to speak directly to the Cuban people. She said the United States supports Cubans’ right to speak freely, have uncensored access to the internet, provide for their families and determine their own leadership. But she said the Cuban government “silences its critics” and “rigs the economy so the government alone profits.”

Cuban officials immediately took to Twitter to attack Haley’s comments.

Rodríguez criticized President Donald Trump’s June speech in Miami, calling it “old-fashioned and hostile.” While in Miami, the president said the United States would “not be silent in the face of communist oppression any longer” and he pledged to stiffen the embargo by putting more restrictions on U.S. travel to and business with Cuba.

Absent hard evidence about mysterious attacks that have harmed the health of U.S. diplomats in Havana, Rodríguez said the U.S. undertook new measures to tighten the blockade — the Cuban term for the embargo — that have affected the Cuba-U.S. relationship as a whole. [The United States reduced its Havana embassy staff by 60 percent, expelled Cuban diplomats from the Cuban Embassy in Washington and issued a travel warning.]

Rodríguez called the measures an “unfounded and mendacious” way to prevent Americans from traveling to the island.

He noted that Trump has repeatedly said he will only support lifting the embargo if Cuba makes changes in its “domestic order.”

“Today, I say that Cuba will never agree to conditions or anything being imposed on this order, “ Rodríguez said. Such pressures haven’t worked in the past, he said, and Trump “will be one more president implementing a policy that means a return to the past.”

But Rodríguez said Cuba is still willing to negotiate with the United States and hold dialogues on matters of mutual interest.

President Donald Trump powered into East Little Havana and announced a sweeping change in relations intended to rebuke his predecessor’s opening toward the island.

Speaker after speaker rose at the General Assembly session to condemn the adverse effects of the embargo on the Cuban economy and by extension on the Cuban people. Many also expressed dismay that the rapprochement began under the Obama administration was being reversed by the hardline policy toward Cuba of the Trump administration.

Speaking for the 14 members of CARICOM (the Caribbean Community), Inga Rhonda King, the representative of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, said the future of the Caribbean depends on collective goals. The Caribbean nations, she said, regard the embargo “an impediment to our shared regional development.”

Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi