The Cuba Embargo: Isolating America

Once a year, Cuba raises its head above the fence around America’s backyard and calls out to the world to condemn its imprisonment. And, once a year, the US, despite all its lofty rhetoric of international order and democracy, ignores the voice of the United Nations General Assembly and goes on starving the people of Cuba.

In thirty consecutive votes since 1992, the UN General Assembly has overwhelmingly condemned the US embargo of Cuba.

Last year the vote against the US was 184-2. The US and Israel voted against ending the embargo and Ukraine, Colombia and Brazil abstained.

This year, on November 3, the condemnation of the US was even stronger. The US lost one of its abstaining allies and was condemned by the world by a vote of 185-2. Only Israel voted with the US, and only Ukraine and Brazil abstained.

William LeoGrande, Professor of Government at American University and a specialist in US foreign policy toward Latin America, told me that "The recent UN vote represents the most complete repudiation of the US embargo by the world community since the annual resolution was first introduced 30 years ago."

In all the world, only Israel voted with the US. "Ukraine," LeoGrande explained, "abstained in deference to the support it receives from Washington in its war with Russia."

Changes in the voting patterns of Brazil and Columbia are telling forecasts for future UN condemnations of the US. In 2021, Colombia abstained. But this year’s election of Gustavo Petro as president ended a long line of presidents who swore fealty to the US. Columbia has long been the key to US projection into Latin America. Biden had “said many times that Colombia is the keystone of U.S. policy in Latin America and the Caribbean.” He has called the relationship between the two nations “the essential partnership we need in this hemisphere,” and Colombia “the linchpin . . . to the whole hemisphere.”

In this year’s General Assembly vote, Petro’s Colombia broke lose and voted against the US. A month earlier, in October, Petro asked US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to remove Cuba from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism."

Petro has also returned Colombia’s ambassador to Venezuela, fulfilling his election promise to fully restore diplomatic relations with Venezuela. Petro and Venezuela’s President Maduro recently discussed the strengthening of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, of which Cuba is a member.

In 2019, Brazil, under Jair Bolsonaro, became the first Latin American country to vote with the US and against condemning the embargo. The break from Latin American consensus seemed to be the product of Bolsonaro’s calculated desire to improve relations with Donald Trump and the US. LeoGrande called this year’s Brazilian abstention "a parting ideological shot from Bolsanaro." It will be Brazil’s last.

With the recent election of Lula da Silva as president of Brazil, Brazil will return to a policy of breaking free of US hegemony in the region and stressing regional integration. Celso Amorim, Lula’s foreign minister in his first round as president and his current foreign policy advisor, says that Latin American integration is still crucial to Lula’s foreign policy.

The elections of Gustavo Petro in Colombia and Lula DA Silva in Brazil forecast an even stronger repudiation and isolation of the US in future General Assembly votes condemning the embargo.

Though usually attributed to Kennedy, the genesis of the US embargo on Cuba goes back to the Eisenhower administration. On January 25, 1960, President Eisenhower suggested that the US navy “quarantine” Cuba. “If they are hungry,” the President fumed, “they will throw Castro out.” His ambassador to Cuba, Philip W. Bonsal, chided him with a moral reminder: “We should not punish the whole Cuban people for the acts of one abnormal man.”

Less than a year later, that moral restraint had disintegrated. In October, the US banned exports to Cuba except food and medicine, planting the seed of the embargo that grips Cuba to this day. In February 1962, Kennedy would water that seed and lock the people of Cuba under a full economic embargo. With growing cruelty, in January 1964, Johnson moved to include food and medicine in the embargo. By 2018, that embargo had cost Cuba $130 billion, according to the UN

Though, campaigning to be president in March 2020, Biden promised that he would "promptly reverse the failed Trump policies that have inflicted harm on the Cuban people and done nothing to advance democracy and human rights," he did not.

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez has said that the first fourteen months of the Biden administration has cost Cuba $6.35 billion, or more than $15 million every day. This year, speaking before the General Assembly, he called the embargo "a deliberate act of economic warfare with the purpose of preventing financial income to the country, destroying the government’s ability to meet the needs of the population, causing the economy to collapse and creating a situation of ungovernability." He wondered aloud "What would Cuba be like today, if it had had those resources?"

The US has strangled the people of Cuba for sixty years in an attempt to maintain hegemony in its backyard and to strangle alternative forms of government. But it also, LeoGrande told me, "continues to oppose the annual resolution partly out of inertia – a policy once in place tends to stay in place." Electoral cynicism also plays a role. LeoGrande said Biden’s policy is also "partly because abstaining, as the Obama administration did in 2016, would be denounced by Florida Republicans as Biden being soft on communism on the eve of the mid-term elections."

UN General Assembly votes are not legally binding. But the US has recently insisted, in other contexts, that the votes reflect world opinion and carry moral and democratic weight. If that’s true, then the US has a moral and democratic responsibility to follow the international order it claims to defend and end the embargo on Cuba.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.