The Slatest

The U.S. Just Stopped Defending Its Cuba Embargo at the U.N.

Students of the University of Havana in the Cuban capital on Wednesday.

Adalberto Roque/AFP/Getty Images

In an annual tradition now in its 25th year, the U.N. General Assembly overwhelmingly voted Wednesday to condemn the U.S. embargo on Cuba. But things were a little different this year as, for the first time, the United States abstained rather than vote against the condemnation of one of its own policies.

The Obama administration has taken a number of steps to normalize relations with Cuba, including a visit by the president to the island earlier this year and the resumption of commercial flights. But the vast majority of the trade restrictions under the more than 50-year-old embargo can only be lifted by Congress. And Republicans in Congress do not want to do that.

Explaining the abstention Wednesday, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power called the annual resolution “a perfect example of why the U.S. policy of isolation toward Cuba was not working—or worse, how it was actually undermining the very goals it set out to achieve.” Rather than isolating Cuba, Power argued, it had only isolated the United States.

Indeed, in recent years the U.S. could typically only count on the support of Israel and several small Pacific islands in the lopsided vote. Last year, the first time the vote was held since the normalization process began, it was just Israel.

Still, it’s pretty striking to see a U.S. administration unwilling to defend the country’s own laws, and the fact that it feels comfortable doing so less than two weeks before Florida voters head to the polls in a presidential election, says a lot about how the politics surrounding this issue have changed. The Cuba embargo is increasingly unpopular, even among Cuban American voters in Florida, to the point that Hillary Clinton made her opposition to the “failed policy” a campaign issue in the state.

That doesn’t mean the embargo is going to be lifted: It still has some powerful backers in Congress who care more deeply about this issue than the embargo opponents. But at least the administration, and assuming Clinton wins, its successor, are no longer in the awkward position of defending a policy at the U.N. that they strongly condemn at home.