US changes vote on UN resolution against Cuba embargo

It's been a fall ritual in New York for a quarter century.

Holiday shopping, the city's marathon, and the US voting against the rest of the world at the UN over Washington's Cuba embargo.

On Wednesday, however, the US took the small but significant step of changing its vote to an abstention on the annual UN General Assembly resolution calling for an end to the US economic embargo of the island nation.

For 25 years, the US has been on the losing end of the lopsided, if legally non-binding, vote. Traditionally, only a handful of smaller nations side with the US. This time, the US and Israel alone abstained, while the 191 other UN member countries voted for the resolution. The measure calls on countries to repeal laws that restrict freedom of trade and navigation.

The biggest reason for the switch, of course, is the warming relations between the US and Cuba.

President Barack Obama is in favor of lifting the embargo entirely as part of the countries' rapprochement. But the US Congress is opposed, citing in particular Cuba's human rights violations.

Still, the White House has been able to open up some avenues of exchange, including regular plane flights between the two countries, unthinkable only a few years ago.

In March, President Obama made the first visit to Cuba by a sitting president since 1928.

US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power drew cheers at the UN when she explained the US switch in position Wednesday. And a tweet from Power put it in simpler terms, noting that every year the UN votes to end the US embargo against Cuba. "We've always voted 'no.' Today, for the 1st time ever, we abstained," she tweeted.

Obama administration officials said the abstention was due to the continued isolation of its island neighbor being harmful to the people of Cuba. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes tweeted there "is no reason to vote to defend a failed policy we oppose."
But Power still told the General Assembly that abstaining on the resolution didn't mean that Washington agrees with all the policies of the Cuban government.

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla told the UN that despite progress between the two countries, the economic and financial blockade is seriously harming the Cuban people and hurting economic development. He added that lifting the embargo was the key to advancing towards normalized relations with the US.

Power indicated Wednesday's abstention was a small step in efforts at further engagement with the Cuban people, even amidst the outstanding differences with the government.

"May there be many more," she said, including "we hope, finally ending the embargo."