A rarity occurred at the United Nations on Wednesday.
Thirty-two seconds into her speech to the General Assembly, U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power was interrupted by applause. You can watch the video here, courtesy of Progreso Weekly, and time it for yourself.
Her first paragraph read:
For more than 50 years, 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 roots of “abstain” are in 14th-century French. It means “to withhold oneself,” or to “restrain oneself from doing or enjoying something.” Normally, abstention is associated with virtue which, the Stoics taught us, is its own reward.
Yet, upon her mention of the word “abstain,” the General Assembly nearly explodes with applause and, seconds later, Ambassador Power grins (perhaps thinking to herself, “best day ever!”).
For 24 consecutive years, the United States made defending the embargo its losing, lonely cause, joined only by Israel, which stood with us during the last roll call in 2015, when Cuba’s resolution against the U.S. embargo carried the General Assembly by a vote of 191-2.
After speaking its truth through Power, the administration changed the tally on the resolution, which passed the General Assembly 191 to zero. Perhaps more important, its expression of virtue through abstention exposed the vice implicit in support for the embargo itself.
“Blessed is the man,” George Eliot said, “who having nothing to say, abstains from giving wordy evidence of the fact.” By contrast, the hardliners who demanded the easy, deceptive clarity of a “no” vote on the resolution, gave wordy evidence to their injury.
By voting to abstain, “The administration turned its back on U.S. law and the suffering Cuban people,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce said. Congressman Mario Díaz-Balart called the abstention “another shameless concession to the Castro regime.” Mauricio Claver-Carone, executive director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, called it “perhaps the most egregious breach” of President Barack Obama’s constitutional responsibilities and oath of office. Senator Bob Menéndez called it “shameful.”
At long last, the Obama administration, which voted “no” year after year, as the most devout critics of its engagement policy wanted, no longer had the stomach for it. As Ben Rhodes, President Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications, and a principal architect of the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement, explained in his tweet on Wednesday, there is “no reason to vote to defend a failed policy we oppose.”
Ambassador Power argued that abstaining on the vote, like lifting the embargo itself, is a statement of our values, not an abandonment of them. “While our governments continue to disagree on fundamental questions of human rights,” she said, “we have found a way to discuss these issues in a respectful and reciprocal manner.”
She called the simple, but profoundly expressive act of abstaining “a small step.” And then concluded, “May there be many, many more – including, we hope, finally ending the U.S. embargo once and for all.”
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