Published On: Wed, Nov 21st, 2012

The US Embargo on Cuba: A Tangible Example of the Intrinsic Failure of the United Nations General Assembly

On 13 November 2012, for the 21st consecutive year, the world condemned the 52 year old US trade embargo on Cuba in an almost unanimous vote. What is the US trade embargo on Cuba? When was it installed? And why, regardless of international pressure does this still exist? Is there anything that the Fidel Castro’s administration could do to eliminate this embargo?

The US trade embargo on Cuba goes back 52 years, 2 years after the beginning of the Cuban Revolution which removed pro-American president Batista, and replaced him with the anti-American communist regime of Fidel Castro. The blockade was a reaction to the nationalization of land in Cuba, which put US citizens and corporations in Cuba in very difficult situations, where the Cubans could decide upon their own fate rather than having the US determine it for them. The embargo remained open to each administration, and so the strength and weakness of the embargo fluctuated in light of the economic and political tensions of the Cold War and on American leadership. In 1992 however, the Cuban Democracy Act was codified into law, which allowed the US to legally maintain its sanctions against Cuba until they moved closer towards respecting human rights and democracy. In 1996, the US went one step further by prohibiting US citizens from doing business with Cuban companies or providing the Cubans with any financial support whatsoever.

While President Bill Clinton attempted to authorize humanitarian aid from the US for the citizens of the island, the embargo as codified into law still stands. Regardless of these embargoes, the US still plays a key role in the Cuban economy providing it with 6.6% of its imports, which may not be paid by credit but only in cash, giving US citizens the upper hand in these transactions.

With the codification of the embargo in US law came the direct condemnation by member states of the United Nations (UN), a condemnation that is even more fervent today, leading member-states to pass UN General Assembly resolutions each year for the past 21 years. Various states claim that the US embargo on Cuba runs against international law as it infringes on the sovereignty of the Cuban state and prohibits US citizens from doing business with them, which impinges on these citizen’s human rights. Under the charter of the UN, each state is perceived as legally equally, however the US trade embargo on Cuba, as codified into US law is interfering with the Cuban equality amongst states, prohibiting them from trading to their full potential. According to the representative of China in the General Assembly, “It is disappointing to witness the lingering unilateral and discriminatory commercial practices in today’s world of independence and multilateral cooperation among states. The blockade violates international law… it is a transgression to the rights of the sovereign states to peace, development, and security and is in essence an objective of unilateral aggression and a permanent threat to the stability of the country.”

The passing of 21 consecutive resolutions by a clear majority in the UN General Assembly raises two points regarding the United Nations: (1) In the General Assembly, the majority of countries are able to express their viewpoints on a very equal standpoint, and (2) the power of the UN General Assembly is inherently non-existent due to the lack of jurisdiction. Defending Cuba in the face of the US is a difficult thing to do, but doing so in the General Assembly makes it easier for countries like the Solomon Islands or Uruguay who can express their opinions in a way where their self-interest is in no way affected. That being said however, in the UN Security Council, the five permanent members have veto power in addition to their initial pull as leaders of trade, development aid and other international influence. The role of the Security Council however, is quite different to that of the General Assembly, whose resolutions are recommendations and condemnations but are in no way binding for nation-states. This is fully evident in the resolution passed regarding the US Trade Embargo on Cuba. Regardless of how many resolutions the General Assembly passes, and regardless of the powerful speeches given by various member states, the US has no legally binding responsibility to eliminate their embargo, and it remains a decision made simply by their government.

This year, the Obama administration stated that they would indeed reduce the extent of the embargo on Cuba but there was no chance that the embargo would be completely eliminated; as it is part of US law. Irrespective of the powerful statements made by Cuba, who claimed that the US government has shackled the independence of the Cuban people, while supporting bloody dictatorship across the globe. Notwithstanding the bold statements made comparing the embargo to genocide, the US Embargo on Cuba is here to stay, reiterating how while the UN is all we have, its successes are often undermined by its flaws. The principles for which it stands: sovereignty, equality, and respect are in their essence intrinsic to its inherent failure.

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