The U.N. voted (again) in support of lifting the Cuban embargo, but this time there was a twist

Handprints of students are seen on a wall during an event opposing the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba in Havana, Cuba, Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018.
Handprints of students are seen on a wall during an event opposing the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba in Havana, Cuba, Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018. AP

As it has every year since 1992, the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly Thursday for a resolution that called for lifting the U.S. embargo against Cuba — despite a U.S. move to put the focus on Cuba’s human rights record.

The vote was 189-2 in favor of the resolution with no abstentions. Only the United States and Israel voted against it.

Before the vote, there was debate on eight amendments proposed by the United States that criticized Cuba’s human rights record and lack of civil liberties on the island. The amendments were all defeated by wide margins with only three delegations — the United States, Israel and Ukraine — consistently voting for them. The Marshall Islands also voted in favor of one amendment.

Some delegations said they were not opposed to the content of the amendments but said they voted against them because the resolution on the embargo wasn’t the appropriate venue for their introduction.

U.S. officials said they didn’t expect to turn the tide on the embargo vote, but they wanted to show why they think the U.S. embargo is needed.

“There are no winners here today. There are only losers. The United Nations has lost,” said Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. “Most of all the Cuban people have lost and are left once again to the brutal whims of the Castro dictatorship.”

She said the non-binding resolution changes nothing and “doesn’t help a single Cuban.”

But in his presentation, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez said the embargo is “still the main obstacle to the aspirations for the well-being and prosperity of several generations” of Cubans.

He not only talked about the financial toll it has taken and its impact on Cubans’ health because the embargo prevents them from getting some treatments and medicines only available in the U.S., but devoted a large portion of his comments to U.S. problems, from poverty to vote suppression to the use of torture on adversaries. “The government of the United States doesn’t have the least moral authority to criticize Cuba or anyone else on human rights,” he said.

Just after arriving in Moscow for a visit, Cuban leader Miguel Díaz-Canel tweeted: “The people of the world voted for Cuba because they know our cause is truly just.”

Ever since the Cuba-backed resolution was first introduced, U.N. member states have approved it by an overwhelming margin. The most no votes it has ever garnered were four, including those of the United States and Israel, which has always voted in lockstep with the U.S.

The only time the United States didn’t cast a no vote was in 2016 during the Obama administration’s opening toward Cuba when both the U.S. and Israel abstained. During their remarks, several delegations expressed the hope that the United States and Cuba could work together to repair a rapprochement that began under the Obama administration but has withered since President Donald Trump took office.

With relations between Washington and Havana increasingly chilly, the United States tried the new tactic to draw attention to its position and deflect Cuban arguments that the continuation of the more than half-century-old embargo is the cause of Cuba’s economic problems and a flagrant violation of all Cubans’ human rights.

“Other countries and the U.N. cannot be counted on to do anything about Cuban human rights,” said a U.S. official. “Only the U.S. will do it. Today’s votes proved that.”

In a tweet posted Wednesday evening, the U.S. mission to the United Nations positioned the vote as a choice on who has the moral high ground. “Every year Cuba puts forth a resolution that blames Cuba’s poverty, repression, and lack of freedom on the United States. Tomorrow the U.N. will hear what we have to say about that and countries will have to vote between Cuba or the U.S. Who will vote with us?”

In another tweet, the mission asked: “Which countries will refuse to denounce their [Cuba’s] practice of detention and torture of political prisoners?”

Rodríguez said in advance of the vote that Cuba wasn’t worried about the outcome. “We are sure the amendments will be rejected and that the resolution will receive overwhelming majority support as has happened in the past,” he said. “We don’t think anyone in the hall will buy this attempt to deceive.”

The vote took place the same day that National Security Adviser John Bolton was in Miami. Bolton made an appearance at the Freedom Tower just days before the midterm elections and outlined the Trump administration’s plans to increase pressure on Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, which he called the “Troika of Tyranny.”

The vote also came on the heels of a United Nations clash between the United States and Cuba two weeks ago when the U.S. tried to launch its campaign to highlight the plight of political prisoners in Cuba. The U.S. presentation was interrupted by the Cuban and Bolivian delegations’ relentless pounding on desks and shouting. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the disruption a “childish temper tantrum.”

The United States first submitted the amendments as a single addition to the embargo resolution but then decided to separate them into eight separate amendments to allow each to be fully debated and voted on.

The first amendment calls on Cuba to “fully grant its citizens internationally recognized civil, political and economic rights and freedoms, including freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, and free access to information.”

In this file photo Cuban dissidents are detained by police on the island. ADALBERTO ROQUE AFP/Getty Images

Other amendments go into more detail on those themes as well as express concern about the Cuban government’s “trade union monopoly,” why women aren’t represented more in powerful Cuban decision-making bodies, and urge Cuba to release those detained “for the legitimate exercise of their human rights.”

Rodríguez called the U.S. move “a pretext to strengthen the blockade [the Cuban term for the embargo] and to take up more time, create confusion and make it more difficult for the resolution to be adopted.”

He said the United States was trying to turn the debate into one that attacks Cuba’s human rights record when the embargo itself is a massive violation of human rights that Cubans suffer “precisely because of the application of the blockade.”

During U.N. debate on the embargo resolution Wednesday, Russia’s U.N. representative, Vassily A. Nebenzia, called the embargo an “abhorrent relic of the Cold War” and said it “hobbles” Cuba’s ability to engage in global financial markets and to participate in international credit institutions.

Juan José Gómez Camacho, Mexico’s representative, said that lifting the embargo will generate “greater investment flows that will benefit the entire region, permitting a greater flow of people, goods and technology.”

Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi