Ramon Espinosa/AP
Students cheer in front of journalists, in Havana, Cuba, Wednesday, after hearing the United Nations' 191-0 with two abstentions vote on the Cuba embargo resolution. The United States abstained for the first time in 25 years Wednesday on a UN resolution condemning America's economic embargo against Cuba, a measure it had always opposed.

For first time, US abstains from UN vote condemning Cuba blockade

After voting 'no' for 24 years, the United States abstained for the first time from a United Nations General Assembly vote Wednesday on a resolution calling for an end to the US economic embargo against Cuba.

It was just another day, another vote in the United Nations. Until, suddenly, it wasn’t.

For the past 24 years, the United Nations has voted on whether to call for an end to the US embargo on Cuba. Every year, the United States has opposed the resolution. On Wednesday, that came to an end, when Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the United Nations, announced that the United States would abstain from the vote.

For the United States, it’s part of an ongoing shift in approaches toward Cuba. And internationally, the abstention has been lauded as a promising sign of changing attitudes.

“After 55-plus years of pursuing the path of isolation, we are choosing to take the path of engagement,” Ambassador Power told the UN General Assembly. 

Power emphasized that abstaining did not mean that the United States wholly supports Cuban policy, saying “We are profoundly concerned by the serious human rights violations that the Cuban government continues to commit with impunity against its own people.”

To President Obama, engagement with Cuba will be more effective at strengthening human rights on the island than existing isolationist policies have been. To that end, he has been pushing for a normalization of relations with Cuba throughout his time in office. This began in December 2014, when Mr. Obama and Cuban president Raúl Castro, announced a restoration of ties.

Since then, Obama has done what he can to encourage that engagement by loosening restrictions on trade and travel. Administration officials say this has created important links between the two governments, citizens, and companies. 

A sixth round of such changes came two weeks ago, widely considered by observers as an effort to cement the president’s legacy on Cuba before his term is up. The abstention, a historic if non-binding step, may be a further effort to set the direction of future US-Cuba relations.

The move was applauded by listeners at the UN General Assembly, where more than 20 speakers from around the world had already expressed their opposition to the ban on trade. Cuba has suffered economically under the trade embargo, which Cuba’s foreign minister, Bruno Rodriguez, said in September had cost the country $125.9 billion since it was first imposed.

The resolution garnered 191 of 193 votes in favor. Israel, which joined the US in abstaining, had also voted "no" last time around.

"The blockade is still in force, but this means that there’s been a change in attitude at the highest levels of US government and politics," Raul Palmeiro, a law student and president of the University of Havana’s Student Federation, told The Associated Press.

Granma, the official voice of the Communist Party of Cuba Central Committee, was elated, calling the vote “a triumph of the heroic resistance of the Cuban people.”

The UN resolution itself is non-binding, and the power to end sanctions lies with Congress. The legislature shows no signs of lifting the embargo. In a tweet, Sen. Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey, the son of Cuban immigrants, called the embargo a “bipartisan, human rights-based US law.” Another Cuban-American legislator, Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, described the United States’ decision to abstain as “shameful,” tweeted that, as “the law of the United States,” sanctions “should always be defended and upheld.” 

Material from The Associated Press and Reuters was included in this report.

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