By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Repeating an annual ritual, the U.N. General Assembly called on Tuesday for the United States to lift its trade embargo against Cuba, whose foreign minister said the blockade against the communist-run island was tantamount to "genocide."
For the 21st year, the assembly's vote was overwhelming, with 188 nations - including most of Washington's closest allies - supporting the embargo resolution, a result virtually unchanged from last year.
Israel, heavily dependent on U.S. backing in the Middle East, and the tiny Pacific state of Palau were the only two countries that supported the United States in opposing the non-binding resolution in the 193-nation assembly. The Pacific states of the Marshall Islands and Micronesia abstained.
President Barack Obama further loosened curbs last year on U.S. travel and remittances to Cuba. He had said he was ready to change Cuba policy but was still waiting for signals from Havana, such as the release of political prisoners and guarantees of basic human rights.
But Obama has not lifted the five-decade-old trade embargo, and the imprisonment of a U.S. contractor in Cuba has halted the thaw in Cuban-U.S. relations.
Havana's Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez told the assembly that Cuba had high hopes for Obama when he was first elected in 2008 and welcomed his calls for change. But he said the result had been disappointing.
"The reality is that the last four years have been characterized by the persistent tightening of ... the embargo," he said.
Rodriguez said the "extraterritoriality" of the blockade measures - the fact that Washington pressures other countries to adhere to the U.S. embargo - violates international law. He added that the blockade is not in U.S. interests and harms its credibility.
"It leads the U.S. to adopt costly double standards," he said, adding that the embargo has failed to achieve its objectives of pressuring the government to introduce economic and political freedoms and comply with international human rights standards.
"There is no legitimate or moral reason to maintain this embargo that is anchored in the Cold War," he said.
He said it qualified as a "act of genocide" against Cuba and was a "massive, flagrant and systematic violation of the human rights of an entire people."
U.S. envoy Ronald Godard rejected the resolution's call for ending the blockade and Cuba's allegation that the United States was to blame for Cuban financial difficulties. He added that the government in Havana was putting the brakes on Cuba's further development, not the United States.
"It is the Cuban government that continues to deprive them of that aspiration," he said, adding that Cuba was seeking an "external scapegoat for the island's economic problems."
Godard said Washington was not punishing the Cuban people. He said $2 billion in remittances were sent from the United States to Cuba last year, while Washington had authorized over $1.2 billion in humanitarian assistance.
He repeated Washington's calls for Cuba to "immediately release Mr. (Alan) Gross," a U.S. contractor serving a 15-year sentence in Cuba for setting up Internet networks, work that a judge said was a crime against the Cuban state.
Gross' imprisonment halted efforts by Obama to improve long-hostile relations between the United States and Cuba.
Rodriguez received a resounding ovation after his speech. No one applauded Godard as the assembly proceeded to the vote.
(Editing by Philip Barbara)