Will the USA-Cuba Deal End a UN “Tradition?”

With normalization of American relations with Cuba could come the end of a longstanding tradition at the UN General Assembly.

Every year since the early 1990s, the UN General Assembly has held a symbolic vote condemning the US embargo of Cuba. In UN-speak, this vote is called “Necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba,” and it usually happens every October.

The vote is an annual embarrassment for the United States. Even tried and trusted American allies like the UK, Canada and Australia vote to condemn the embargo. A typical outcome was the 2013 vote tally: 188 in favor. Two against (the USA and Israel) and three abstentions (Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Palau). These votes are always accompanied by rousing condemnations  by other member states on Cuba as antiquated, punitive, and inimical to humanitarian principles and human rights.

On a conference call this morning to discuss the policy change a Senior Administration Official referenced the most recent vote, which took place on October 28, saying, “The last vote was something like 192-2. I think we were joined by Palau in that vote. The rest of the world has moved on from this policy. This will be not only good for the US, but good for the world.” (In fact, the vote tally was exactly the same as the previous year: 188 in favor, with the same two countries against and the same three abstentions. But the point still stands.)

This vote of course is symbolic, but it does demonstrate the extreme isolation of the United States on this one peculiar hangover of the Cold War era. Normalization of relations between the USA and Cuba may also have non-symbolic reverberations and consequences at the General Assembly. Non-symbolic at the General Assembly (like over budget questions or treaty texts) generally proceed by consensus. From an American perspective, Cubans sometimes block consensus and slow down negotiations more out of apparent pique than any substantive disagreement. These issues usually get resolved, but the bickering between the USA and Cuba can sometimes slow down or complicate complex negotiations. Presumably, a warming of relations between the USA and Cuba would put and end to this kind of bickering.

A second area of potential cooperation is more tangible: the fight against ebola. On the White House conference call this morning a Senior Administration Official specifically cited Cuba’s contributions to the fight against ebola as a key area of common interest. Cuba has more doctors per capita than any other country in the world–and it is exceedingly willing to dispatch them around the world in times of emergency.  Cuba is somewhat renowned in the UN system for rapidly dispatching highly trained doctors to dangerous and urgent situations. Right now, there are over 250 Cuban physicians in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. More concerted cooperation between the USA and Cuba on the fight against ebola could have profound and immediate consequences.

Today’s announcement is a big and bold step for the United States and Cuba. At the UN, we can expect better cooperation on the humanitarian front, smoother negotiations when consensus is required, and an ending to an annual American embarrassment. As the Senior Administration Official succinctly put it: “If there is any US policy that is past its expiration date, it’s the US-Cuba policy.”