APNewsBreak: US weighs abstention on Cuba embargo vote at UN

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Posted: Sep 21, 2015 3:17 PM
APNewsBreak: US weighs abstention on Cuba embargo vote at UN

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration may allow the U.N. to condemn America's economic embargo against Cuba without a fight, The Associated Press has learned, an unprecedented step that could increase pressure on Congress to end the 54-year-old restrictions.

As it does every year, the U.N. General Assembly will vote as early as next month to demand the embargo's end. But this time, U.S. officials told the AP that the United States could abstain instead of voting against the resolution as it normally does.

It is unheard of for a U.N. member state not to oppose resolutions critical of its own laws. And by not actively opposing the resolution, the administration would be effectively siding with the world body against the Republican-led House and Senate, which have refused to repeal the embargo despite calls from President Barack Obama to do so.

The U.S. and Cuba restored diplomatic relations this year, and leaders of the two countries want to improve commercial ties. But the embargo remains.

"Obviously, we have to obey the law," State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters Monday. "It doesn't mean you can't take a position that you want the law changed."

No final decision on how to vote has yet been made, said four administration officials who weren't authorized to speak publicly on sensitive internal deliberations and demanded anonymity. White House spokesman Josh Earnest also declined to weigh in because he said the proposed resolution wasn't final. He noted, however, that U.S. policy has changed since the last time the world body assessed the embargo.

The very idea of an abstention prompted immediate Republican criticism.

Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American senator from Florida, said that by abstaining, Obama would be "putting international popularity ahead of the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States." The embargo, he said, denies money to a dictatorship that can be used to further oppression.

General Assembly resolutions are unenforceable. But the annual exercise has given Cuba a stage to demonstrate America's isolation on the embargo, and it has underscored the sense internationally that the U.S. restrictions are illegitimate.

The United States has lost the votes by increasingly overwhelming and embarrassing margins. Last year's tally was 188-2 with only Israel siding with the U.S. Israel would be expected to vote whichever way the U.S. decides.

The American officials said that the U.S. is still more likely to vote against the resolution than abstain. However, they said the U.S. will consider abstaining if the wording of the resolution significantly differs from previous years. The administration is open to discussing revisions with the Cubans and others, they added, something American diplomats have never done before.

The latest U.S. easing of sanctions occurred Friday and was followed by a rare phone call between Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro. Pope Francis, who has played a key role in the rapprochement between Havana and Washington, arrived in Havana a day later. He travels to the U.S. on Tuesday.

Obama and Castro discussed "steps that the United States and Cuba can take, together and individually, to advance bilateral cooperation," the White House said. The Cuban government said Castro "emphasized the need to expand their scope and abrogate, once and for all, the blockade policy for the benefit of both peoples."

Neither statement mentioned the U.N. vote. Yet as it has for the past 23 years, Cuba will introduce a resolution at the upcoming General Assembly criticizing the embargo and demanding its end. Cuba's government wouldn't comment Monday on the new U.S. consideration.

The U.S. officials, however, said the administration believes an abstention could send a powerful signal to Congress and the world of Obama's commitment to end the embargo. Obama says the policy failed over more than five decades to spur democratic change and left the U.S. isolated among its Latin American neighbors.

It's unclear what changes would be necessary to prompt a U.S. abstention.

Last year's resolution cited the "necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo" and took aim at the Helms-Burton Act. That 1996 law made foreign firms subject to the same restrictions U.S. companies face for investing in Cuba, and authorized penalties for non-U.S. companies operating and dealing with property once owned by U.S. citizens but confiscated after Fidel Castro's revolution.

A report issued by Cuba last week in support of this year's resolution doesn't suggest Havana is toning down its approach.

It says American efforts to ease the embargo are "a step in the right direction but are limited and insufficient in the face of the magnitude and scope of the blockade laws for Cuba and the rest of the world."

The 37-page document says the embargo has cost the Cuban people $833.7 billion — a number the U.S. would never accept. Washington says the communist government has used the embargo as an excuse for its own economic failures.

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Associated Press writers Jennifer Kay and Sergio Bustos in Miami contributed to this report.