The United Nations General Assembly on Thursday overwhelmingly voted to denounce the 57-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. The tally on the annual resolution, titled “Necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba,” was 187 to 3. The United States, Israel and Brazil were the only nations to cast votes against the resolution, with Ukraine and Colombia abstaining.
The vote marks the 28th year in a row that the U.N. has denounced U.S. economic sanctions against Cuba. Last year, the vote was 189 to 2, with Israel and the U.S. voting no. At the time, then-Ambassador Nikki Haley denounced the U.N. for even considering the resolution.
The decision of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro to side with the Trump administration on the embargo resolution marks the first time Brazil has voted against the annual resolution. But unlike the U.S., Brazil has extensive trade with, and investments in, Cuba.
The Brazilian tobacco company, Souza Cruz Ltda, has a joint venture in Havana that manufactures Cuban cigarettes. In return for preferential trading status for at least $800 million worth of Brazilian goods and services, Brazil’s leading development bank, BNDES, advanced Cuba more than $700 million in financing to modernize the deep-water port of Mariel. Today, most of Cuba’s imports and exports flow through that port.
The United Nations’ first condemnation of the trade embargo came in November 1992, shortly after President George H.W. Bush signed the “Cuba Democracy Act” that extended sanctions under the embargo to third countries that continued to trade with Cuba.
In 1960, President Dwight Eisenhower ordered a partial embargo on U.S. exports to Cuba; the full trade embargo was instituted by President John F. Kennedy in February 1962. The economic sanctions, which the Cuban government refers to as el bloqueo (the blockade), continued at the discretion of successive presidents until early 1996; they were authorized by presidential decree and could be rescinded by presidential decree.
However, after the Cuban Airforce shot down two small Cessna planes flown by the anti-Castro exile group, Brothers to the Rescue, in February 1996, President Clinton acceded to the demand of Sen. Jesse Helms that the embargo be codified into law, as part of the Helms-Burton bill expanding the embargo. Since then, lifting the embargo has required the passage of Congressional legislation.
Even so, both Presidents Clinton and Barack Obama used their executive authority to modify the sanctions and allow U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba. Over the last two decades, the U.S. has exported tens of millions of dollars worth of chicken, grains, wood and other agricultural products to the island. To support the Cuban private sector, Obama authorized licensing for a small number of Cuban exports to enter U.S. markets.
Since taking office, President Trump has steadily tightened the embargo and imposed economic pressures on Cuba. In March, the president allowed the implementation of a clause in the 1996 Helms-Burton legislation that permits U.S. citizens, including Cuban-Americans, to sue international and national companies whose current business interests in Cuba involve properties expropriated after the revolution.
Last June, the administration abruptly canceled the Obama-era authorization for cruise ships to visit Cuban ports. On October 25, the State Department terminated commercial plane flights to regional Cuban airports, which will go into effect in December.
In a Twitter statement on November 4, Cuba’s foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez accused the Trump administration of “exercising severe pressures” on six Latin American nations to vote against the resolution. “Cuba,” he said, “will not cease demanding the total elimination of the economic, commercial and financial blockade imposed by the U.S."