Trump admin to defend Cuba embargo at UN, reversing Obama

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration will defend America’s decades-old economic embargo on Cuba in a United Nations vote this week, the State Department said Tuesday, in a reversal from the Obama administration that reflects deteriorating U.S.-Cuban relations.

Every year the U.N. votes on a resolution condemning the embargo, and for years the U.S. has predictably voted “no.” But last year, under President Barack Obama, the U.S. abstained for the first time, as Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro moved forward with the historic warming of relations between the former Cold War foes.

A “no” vote from U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley on Wednesday will mark a return to formal support for the embargo, which Obama had unsuccessfully urged Congress to end. The vote comes as an ongoing crisis over U.S. government workers in Havana harmed by invisible attacks on their health has created a new rift between the U.S. and Cuba, putting the restoration of ties in jeopardy.

“The Trump administration policy gives greater emphasis to advancing human rights and democracy in Cuba, while maintaining engagement that advances U.S. interests,” said State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert.

General Assembly resolutions are nonbinding and unenforceable. But the annual exercise has given Cuba a global stage to demonstrate America’s isolation on its Cuba policy.

The half-century-old U.S. commercial, economic and financial embargo on Cuba is extremely unpopular with other governments, and the yearly vote condemning it has reliably passed overwhelmingly. Voting “no” means the U.S. will once again be pitted against almost every other nation at the U.N. in the annual vote.

In 2015, the last year that the U.S. voted “no,” close ally Israel was the only country to join in opposition, leading to a 191-2 vote to condemn the embargo — the highest number of votes ever for the measure. The United States lost its only other ally in the vote, Palau, in 2013, when the Pacific island nation abstained rather than joining the U.S. in voting “no.”

Since taking office, Trump has taken steps to partially roll back the rapprochement with Cuba, but has preserved many other changes put in place by Obama. Yet Cuba has complained bitterly about the U.S. response to the health attacks, which has included pulling most American diplomats out of Havana and suspending visa processing for Cubans at the embassy there.

“To Cuba, it is unacceptable and immoral that the U.S. government has decided to take political decisions that harm the Cuban people,” he said.

At least 24 U.S. government workers and their spouses are “medically confirmed” to have been affected by the unexplained attacks in Havana, the State Department has said. The victims suffered a range of medical conditions including permanent hearing loss and mild traumatic brain injury, known as concussion.

Cuba vehemently denies any knowledge of involvement. The U.S. has not blamed Cuba for perpetrating the attacks and says it doesn’t know who is responsible, but has nonetheless faulted Castro’s government for failing to keep American diplomats safe in his country.

In late 2014, Obama and Castro announced plans to restore relations, and the following year embassies were re-opened in Washington and Havana. Ties had been cut in 1961 after Fidel Castro took power and installed a communist government.

Although the Obama administration eased travel and commerce restrictions on Cuba, allowing direct commercial flights between the countries to resume, the formal embargo enacted by Congress has remained in place. The Republican-led Congress has continued to support the embargo

The Obama administration’s decision last year to abstain rather than vote “no” was cheered in the 193-member General Assembly. Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. at the time, said the United States remained opposed to some of the Cuban government’s practices and policies but was pursuing a new approach to engagement with the island.

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