Saturday, December 10, 2005

UN Casts Record Vote Against US Embargo on Cuba

November 10, 2005

By Evelyn Leopold

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Nearly every country in the U.N. General Assembly told the United States on Tuesday to lift its four-decade old economic embargo against Cuba in a record vote of 182 to 4 with 1 abstention.

The vote, held for the 14th consecutive year, was on a resolution calling for Washington to lift the U.S. trade, financial and travel embargo, particularly its provisions on penalizing foreign firms.

Voting "no" were the United States, Israel, Palau and the Marshall Islands. Micronesia abstained and El Salvador, Iraq, Nicaragua and Morocco did not vote.

Last year the vote was 179 to 4, with several countries not voting at all.

Cuba has been under a U.S. embargo since President Fidel Castro defeated a CIA-backed assault at the Bay of Pigs in 1961.

Friends of the United States, including Canada, Japan, Australia voted "yes," although the European Union also strongly criticized Cuba's human rights record.

The measure is nonbinding and has had no impact on the United States, with the Bush administration having tightened restrictions against Cuba, including penalties against U.S. and foreign firms, visits from Cuban Americans, licensed travel and remittances to families.

But the resolution has given Cuba a morale boost, especially from South American and Caribbean nations and Mexico, which each year speaks in favor of the resolution.

Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque highlighted regulations tightening the use by Americans of Cuban products abroad, presumably smoking a Cuban cigar or drinking rum.

"In terms of insanity, this draconian prohibition should go into the annals of the Guinness Book of Records," he said.

The United States for the first time downplayed the debate. Its envoy, Ronald Godard, used a procedure allowing him to make a short speech from his seat.

"If the people of Cuba are jobless, hungry or lack medical care, as Castro admits, it is because of his economic mismanagement, not the embargo," Godard said.

He said Cuba's claims of being barred from importing food and medicine is baseless because the United States since 1992 had licensed over $1.1 billion in medical related goods and $5 billion in agricultural commodities in the past five years.

Nevertheless, U.S. agricultural exporters have complained that tougher payment procedures and letters of credit before shipments can leave U.S. ports have harmed their business.

Perez Roque said the U.S. government in 2004, imposed fines on 316 citizens for breaching provisions of the embargo and the number rose to 537 by October 12, 2005.

In 2004, he said a total of 77 companies, banks and private groups were fined for breaking the embargo. Some 11 of them were foreign companies or subsidiaries of U.S. firm in Mexico, Canada, Panama, Italy, Britain Uruguay and the Bahamas. Others were dissuaded from doing business with Cuba, including shipping companies and deep-sea oil drilling firms.

The U.S. action that had the most repercussion in 2004 was a $100 million fine the Federal Reserve imposed on the Swiss bank UBS for transferring new dollar bills to Cuba.

"Never before, as in the last 18 months, was the blockade enforced with so much viciousness and brutality," Perez Roque said.

Godard, however, said Cuba knew what to do. "Fidel Castro knows what it will take to end the embargo -- reforms that will benefit the Cuban people.

And he said the trade embargo "is a bilateral issue and should not come before the General Assembly."

Britain's envoy, Paul Johnston, agreed but slammed Cuba's human rights record, which he said continued to deteriorate and undermined medical and education achievements.

(Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle in Havana)

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