By Abstaining at UN, U.S. Speaks Truth Through Power

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.”


This week, in Cuba news…

U.S.-Cuba Relations

U.S. abstains from UN embargo vote for the first time

On Wednesday, the United Nations General Assembly approved a resolution condemning the U.S. embargo against Cuba. Instead of voting as it has since 1992, the U.S. abstained rather than voting no. Last year, the non-binding resolution was adopted in the General Assembly by a margin of 191-2, with the U.S. and Israel in the minority. This year, the vote was 191-0-2, with Israel joining the U.S. in abstaining.

Ambassador Samantha Power, the U.S. Permanent Representative to the UN, explained the abstention saying “the resolution voted on today is a perfect example of why the U.S. policy of isolation toward Cuba was not working – or worse, how it was actually undermining the very goals it set out to achieve. Instead of isolating Cuba, as President Obama has repeatedly said, our policy isolated the United States. Including right here at the United Nations. … After 50-plus years of pursuing the path of isolation, we have chosen to take the path of engagement.”

As Andrew Fishbein, CDA’s Policy and Advocacy Director, told SBS World News, the vote is “another statement that shows the direction of U.S. policy toward Cuba has fundamentally changed and its course is irreversible.”

New York’s Roswell Park Cancer Institute to conduct first U.S. clinical trial of Cuban-developed lung cancer vaccine, will create joint venture with Cuban research institute

Days after new U.S. regulatory changes facilitating U.S.-Cuba medical cooperation went into effect, Dr. Candace Johnson, President and CEO of the Roswell Park Cancer Institute, and Andrew Cuomo, Governor of New York, announced that Roswell Park has received FDA approval to conduct the first U.S. clinical trial of Cuba’s CIMAvax lung cancer vaccine, and has been granted Treasury Department approval to form a joint business venture with the Cuban research institute that developed the vaccine. CIMAvax is a lung cancer immunotherapy drug developed by researchers at Cuba’s Center for Molecular Immunology (CIM).

“This groundbreaking trial at Roswell Park is the result of our historic partnership with Cuba,” stated Governor Cuomo. The Center for Democracy in the Americas helped plan and participated in a trade mission in 2015, led by Governor Cuomo, during which Roswell Park finalized its partnership arrangement with CIM and began the process of seeking the necessary approvals.

Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA), said in a statement that the partnership between Roswell Park and the CIM “offers hope to cancer patients in the U.S. who need this vaccine, and demonstrates what more could be accomplished by ending the U.S. embargo against Cuba and fully normalizing relations.”

TripAdvisor to begin selling Cuba flights, hotel and tour bookings

The online travel agency TripAdvisor received a license from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control to book flights, hotels, and tours for U.S. travelers to Cuba, Skift reports. Service is expected to begin in a matter of months.

In Cuba

State telecom to bring internet to some Havana homes by end of 2016, to mobile phones next year

ETECSA, Cuba’s state-run telecommunications company, announced plans for a pilot project to bring internet connectivity to the homes of 2,000 residents in the capital city’s Old Havana neighborhood by the end of the year, along with a project to provide internet access on cell phones, which will begin in 2017, Reuters reports. Last month, ETECSA announced that it will make five miles of the Malecón, Havana’s seafront boulevard, a Wi-Fi hotspot by the end of the year. Cuba has tripled the number of Wi-Fi zones on the island, from 65 at the end of last year to more than 200 at the beginning of September. Just five percent of Cuba’s population has internet access at home, Reuters notes.

Cuba’s Foreign Relations

Cuba pays first installment of renegotiated debts to Paris Club countries

Cuba’s government paid the first installment, or about $40 million, of its renegotiated debts to the 14 members of the Ad-Hoc Group of the Paris Club, ahead of the October 31 deadline, Reuters reports. The debts total $2.6 million; Cuba signed agreements with 13 of the 14 creditor nations (Canada has not signed, but may still do so by year-end), including France, Spain, Japan, and Italy, to forgive $8.5 billion of the original $11.1 billion debt dating back to 1986. Cuba’s on-time repayment of the first installment “is a very important signal that Cuba intends to honor its commitments and a key first step in gaining access to the multilateral lenders,” a foreign banker who has worked in Cuba told Reuters. Subsequent installments are due annually on October 31 over the next 17 years in incrementally increasing amounts.

President of Portugal visits Cuba

Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, President of Portugal, met with Cuba’s President Raúl Castro and former president Fidel Castro in Havana to discuss strengthening bilateral ties, EFE reports. President Rebelo de Sousa also affirmed Portugal’s opposition to the U.S. embargo, declaring it a “universally rejected extraterritorial practice,” according to Cuban state media.

Colombia’s President Santos hopes to reach new accord with FARC by end of November

Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos said in an interview with the news agency EFE that he hopes to reach a new peace accord with the FARC by the end of November. Negotiators returned to Havana after Colombia’s voters narrowly rejected the first peace accord in a referendum October 2, in which just 37 percent of the electorate participated. Asked whether he will call another plebiscite to approve the expected deal, President Santos stated that it is “one of the options” that he is considering. President Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize earlier this month for his efforts to secure a peace accord.

Recommended Reading

Time to finally end the Cuba embargo, Stephen Heifetz and Peter Jeydel, The Hill

Stephen Heifetz and Peter Jeydel of the Washington-based law firm Steptoe & Johnson, LLP, argue that the Obama Administration can still do more to normalize U.S.-Cuba relations. In fact, Heifetz and Jeydel argue, “While the conventional wisdom is that the Obama Administration has gone as far as it can to loosen the embargo and that Congress must take the next steps, that conventional wisdom is wrong. Virtually the entire embargo can be undone with bold executive action.”

Their column, which appeared in The Hill, a publication with an extensive Congressional audience, also said “The President, in the exercise of his constitutional powers, should be able to waive restrictions on commerce that are inconsistent with U.S. foreign policy interests. This is a view with strong scholarly support.”

Editor’s note: CDA is now accepting applications on a rolling basis for our Winter-Spring 2017 internship in areas including policy and advocacy and social media. Applications are due by November 15. Please visit our website for more information about how to apply.

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