The U.N., the U.S. Embargo, and the 20-Year Rout

News from Cuba | Sunday, 23 October 2011

By Sarah Stephens from the Centre for Democracy in the Americas

On Tuesday 25 October, the United Nations General Assembly will debate the "Necessity of ending the economic, commercial, and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba."

This will be the twentieth year the General Assembly has considered a resolution condemning the U.S. embargo. In every previous year, the resolution has been adopted in a rout.

In 2010, a resolution that called upon the U.S. to repeal the embargo was approved by 187-2. Only Israel voted with us. Our nation was condemned by our adversaries and abandoned by our other allies with the exception of three Pacific island nations -- Palau, Marshall Islands, and Micronesia --and they abstained. The policy was totally repudiated.

Next week it will happen again. But even if we suffer a defeat of similar magnitude, the vote is likely to attract scant attention.

The press has grown bored with a story it has covered nineteen times before. Embargo defenders will dismiss the outcome because they simply scorn the U.N. as aligned against America. The Obama administration -- which should hang its head in shame for enforcing a policy it inherited with such vigor -- will simply move along as if nothing much has happened. Even the General Assembly will quickly turn to other pressing items on its agenda such as Cyprus, armed aggression against the Congo, and the peaceful uses of outer space. If it's business as usual, the Cuba story will come and go.

But before this moment passes, it's appropriate to stop and remember how this policy started, what it does, and why the U.S. embargo unites the globe against us.

The U.S. embargo contains the most comprehensive set of U.S. economic sanctions that we impose on any nation in the world. From the beginning, the goal of the embargo was to make the Cuban people suffer so much more than they could bear that they would tear down a government we viewed as a Cold War security threat.

For five decades, the United States has tightened the screws as hard as it could: imposing sharp limits on Cuba's access to American food, medicines and visitors; banning almost all other business activity; using sanctions to stop third countries, including our closest allies, from trading with Cuba; blocking Cuba's access to high technology goods; even siphoning off some of its most promising thinkers by giving Cubans incentives to emigrate and persuading its highly-trained doctors to defect.

None of this caused an uprising or broke the back of the Cuban system. Nor has it ever stopped. A generation after the Cold War ended, the Soviet Union fell, and the U.S. intelligence community concluded that Cuba posed no threat to U.S. security, the regime of sanctions grinds on as if none of this ever happened.

How can this be?

In 2009, Amnesty International pointed out "There is no formal mechanism within the U.S. government to monitor the impact of the embargo on economic and social rights in Cuba."

It's actually worse than that. In reality, there is no formal process inside the U.S. government for assessing the impact of the embargo on the United States.

We hear few voices in the U.S. Congress, the State Department, or the White House asking the tough questions: Do our sanctions backfire and take away from everyday Cubans the prospect for leading more prosperous and independent lives? Is the embargo damaging our nation's standing in Latin America or harming our image across the world? Do U.S. sanctions cost American workers jobs, American businesses profits, and American citizens their liberties?

Even fewer are asking, if the policy has failed to achieve its goals, or if it still causes suffering among everyday Cubans, the presumed beneficiaries, isn't it time to change course and end the embargo?

We're not optimistic that the vote next week at the U.N. will prick the consciences of U.S. policy makers or spark a serious reexamination of the policy. More's the pity.

But if policy makers could do one thing, they should read the report of the Secretary-General that compiles statements from member states about the embargo and reports from U.N. agencies about how the embargo affects them.

The most arresting story comes from the United Nations Development Program. In late 2010, the U.S. government blocked a $4,207,904 payment from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS for programs in Cuba. This action threatened the purchase of life-saving anti-retroviral drugs for Cubans with HIV and put other efforts at testing, prevention, and education at risk. Six months later, after a tough negotiation, the funds were released. But the story begs the question: Why do we have an embargo against Cuba that blocks funds to fight AIDS?

One last point: you can read every comment by member nations and find not one sentence uttered in favor of the embargo. Not even by the United States. We take our government at its word that even it finds our position indefensible.

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