By The Times Editorial Board, Los Angeles Times, October 28, 2016
There was a remarkable moment on the floor of the United Nations earlier this week. As the General Assembly prepared for its annual vote to denounce the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power announced that for the first time, the U.S. would abstain rather than vote against it.
The U.S. has always voted “no” on this measure — every year for the 25 years that it’s come up. And this year’s abstention put the Obama administration in direct conflict with Congress, which has been the driving force behind the embargo for many years and insists on maintaining it. For the executive branch of the U.S. government to side with the United Nations General Assembly against the legislative branch of the U.S. government sends a powerful and controversial message — and, frankly, a long overdue one. Congress ought to take the hint and lift the embargo.
In place for more than a half-century, the embargo is a Cold War relic that long ago outlived whatever usefulness it might have had (if, indeed, it ever was useful). First imposed in 1960 by President Eisenhower, the embargo was made permanent by Congress in 1996 after Cuba shot down two small planes piloted by Miami-area anti-Castro activists who had been dropping pro-democracy leaflets over the island. The embargo today bars most trade between the U.S. and Cuba.
To its credit, the Obama administration has finally moved to normalize relations with Cuba, and has revised regulations to, among other things, allow direct commercial flights, reopen the American Embassy and legalize some commercial transactions that fall outside the congressional embargo. But ending the broader trade embargo, which has caused untold economic damage to the Cuban people without weakening the Castro regime’s political hold on the island, can only be done by Congress.
It’s unclear what the effect will be of the U.S. decision to abstain. It could play into perceptions on the right that the General Assembly is a forum for anti-Americanism and even a threat to U.S. sovereignty. Obama’s decision not to defend our country’s elected legislators in a disagreement with much of the rest of the world could lead the anti-Castro element in Congress to dig in its heels even deeper.
Alternately, Obama’s maneuver could further isolate Congress politically on this issue. Powers was careful to argue that by abstaining, the U.S. was not agreeing with the core element of the U.N. resolution, which frames the embargo as a violation of international law. Rather, she said — to robust cheers from the General Assembly — that the Obama administration recognizes the embargo as a failed policy. “Instead of isolating Cuba, as President Obama has repeatedly said, our policy isolated the United States,” said Powers.
Indeed, the final vote was 191 votes in favor of the nonbinding resolution, with only the U.S. and Israel abstaining.
Cuba’s faults are many. It continues to violate the human rights of its citizens and to suppress political dissent. But it’s become abundantly clear that the embargo has done little, if anything, to compel change. The path forward is through engagement, not punitive isolation, and Congress must free itself from its Cold War blinders and end the embargo.