MEXICO CITY – It is an annual ritual: The United Nations will vote today to condemn the U.S. embargo on Cuba, much as the world organization has done for nearly two decades.
This will be the first time, however, that the call to end the policy will come with Barack Obama as president, giving rise to spirited debate on how his administration, having promised a “new beginning” in Latin America, is handling one of Washington’s most problematic foreign policies.
In recent months the Obama administration has taken steps to ease some sanctions that successive U.S. governments employed against Cuba. It removed restrictions on the sending of remittances and on travel to Cuba by Cuban Americans and opened the way for possible business deals between U.S. telecommunications companies and the island. Officials also opened dialogue with the Cuban government on immigration issues.
Cuban President Raul Castro and his ailing brother Fidel generally have been conciliatory during public speeches. And Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, who arrived in New York on Tuesday, said at a recent news conference in Havana that the U.N. vote on the embargo should not be viewed as business as usual.
“We deal with the theme every year, but this time we do it under what I would see as new circumstances,” Rodriguez said.
But Obama has said he will maintain the 47-year-old embargo as a means of leverage to press for political change in Cuba and in September signed the order that re-upped the sanction annually. Even some supporters say he is acting slowly in unfreezing the relationship between Washington and Havana.
“The Obama administration is moving very slowly and incrementally … but when you add it all up there has been a lot of activity, most of it under the radar but all toward greater engagement with the island,” said Daniel P. Erikson of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank.
Several factors other than Cuba might have influenced Obama’s pace, said Jennifer McCoy, head of the Americas program at the Atlanta-based Carter Center, where former President Jimmy Carter has long advocated improving ties with Cuba. The crisis in Honduras, following a June 28 military-backed coup, has distracted the administration at a time when its top officials designated for Latin America have yet to be confirmed by the Senate.
The embargo has been condemned in the U.N. General Assembly by staggering majorities in recent years that reflect an increasingly isolated U.S. policy, and today’s vote is expected to be no different. The non-binding resolution calls for an end to “the economic, commercial and financial embargo” imposed by the U.S. on Cuba’s Communist government.