As World Set to Condemn U.S. at U.N., Cuba Calls Embargo 'An Act of War'

On the eve of a United Nations General Assembly vote in which the vast majority of the international community was likely to condemn the United States for its ongoing economic embargo against Cuba, the communist-led island's envoy to the U.N. has likened the trade chokehold to an act of war.

"To understand the essence of the blockade and the bilateral relations between Cuba and the U.S., we must understand the blockade as an act of war, a policy that causes calculated damage to an entire people," Cuban permanent representative to the U.N. Pedro Luis Pedroso Cuesta told Newsweek.

"It is an expression of hostility," he added, "that denies the Cuban people their right to self-determination, the right to build and develop the political, economic and social model that Cuba has decided to create in a sovereign manner."

The restrictions date back about six decades to when then-U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower first began to institute sanctions on Cuba as a revolutionary movement led by Fidel Castro rose to power. The measures were later intensified by the succeeding administration of President John F. Kennedy, who attempted to overthrow Castro by force by backing the 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion and, the following year, sent U.S. warships to counter Soviet naval forces bringing nuclear-capable missiles to the island in a standoff that sparked the Cuban Missile Crisis, bringing the world to the brink of nuclear war.

The end of the Cold War 30 years later shifted international opinion on Cuba, however, as Havana was left without a superpower ally and a new consensus has held for nearly three more decades. Since 1992, the year after the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.N. General Assembly has voted annually to condemn the lasting U.S. policy toward Cuba, with the exception of last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the most recent vote held in November 2019, some 187 countries supported the "Necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba." The only three nations to vote against it were Brazil, Israel and the U.S. itself, while Colombia and Ukraine abstained.

That vote came as then-President Donald Trump reversed historic steps taken by his predecessor, former President Barack Obama, to ease the embargo by freeing up certain travel and trade rules. In the final week of Trump's administration, his State Department returned Cuba to the U.S. list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, ushering in additional red flags in any dealings with the country and its ruling Communist Party.

On Wednesday, U.N. members will again weigh in on the embargo, and will do so for the first time since President Joe Biden took office in January. The new U.S. leader served as vice president when Obama pursued his detente with Havana and has set out on a broad policy review of Trump's foreign policy measures.

Biden, whose wife, now-First Lady Jill Biden, traveled to Cuba on an educational and cultural trip just weeks before the 2016 election, asserted on the 2020 campaign trail last September that Trump's approach has since "inflicted harm on the Cuban people and done nothing to advance democracy and human rights." Five months into office, however, he has yet to roll back any of his predecessor's decisions relating to Cuba.

"The President Trump administration adopted 243 coercive measures against Cuba in its intention to intensify the blockade and bend Cuba, 50 of those measures were taken during the year 2020, that is to say, in the midst of the global COVID pandemic, with the purposeful objective of causing greater suffering," Pedroso said. "All those measures remain in force today, and are a reflection of the unprecedented levels that the economic war against Cuba has reached, bringing about hardships of all kinds and material shortages in the daily lives of every Cuban."

He placed the cost of U.S. restrictions between April and December of last year at $3.5 billion, and the damage incurred between March 2020 and April 2019 at $9.1 billion.

"At current prices, the accumulated damages in almost six decades of application of this policy amount to more than $147.8 billion," Pedroso said.

Cuba, protest, embargo, at, US, embassy, Havana
Cubans drive past the U.S. embassy during a rally calling for the end of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, in Havana, March 28. Cubans have regularly marched and rallies in opposition to the Cold War-era restrictions against the communist-led island. YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images

Neither the White House nor State Department has yet to release any recent updates regarding the progress of the Cuba policy review and the Biden administration has remained relatively quiet on the matter as it tackles an array of pressing issues at home and abroad.

Reached for comment by Newsweek, the U.S. mission to the U.N. referred to the State Department.

"The Administration has committed to carefully reviewing U.S.-Cuba policy, including our posture regarding economic sanctions on Cuba, to ensure it advances the goals the Administration is trying to achieve, including improving the political and economic wellbeing of the Cuban people," a State Department spokesperson told Newsweek.

"As part of the ongoing review, the Department of State has actively engaged, and continues to engage, with a wide range of stakeholders representing diverse opinions," the spokesperson added. "The views shared by Cubans, Cuban-Americans, and other stakeholders provide valuable information to policymakers."

Among those in Cuba that the U.S. identified "with a voice and a desire to be heard" were artists, entrepreneurs, independent journalists and environmental activists as well as religious, minority and human rights advocates.

"We seek to empower the Cuban people to determine their own future," the State Department spokesperson said. "In addition to listening to civil society stakeholders, as we conduct our review of U.S.-Cuba policy, we continue to maintain human rights and support for democracy at the core of our efforts. We are concerned for the well-being and rights of artists and others who remain detained simply for exercising their basic human rights, and we will express our concern and denounce abuses when they occur."

The State Department was open to other forms of assistance as well.

"We are committed to considering all options available to support the Cuban people, particularly as they face the pandemic and a scarcity of food and medical care," the spokesperson said. "We are committed to considering all options available to support the Cuban people."

Such a message echoed that of U.S. Secretary Antony Blinken who addressed the Cuban people directly on the May 20 occasion of the 119th anniversary of Cuba's formal independence from the U.S. He said that the administration sought to "celebrate the strong bonds between our two peoples, as well as the diverse backgrounds and ideas of" various elements of Cuban society, including those mentioned by the State Department spokesperson to Newsweek.

"The United States stands with you and seeks to support you as you pursue freedom, prosperity, and a future of greater dignity," Blinken, who served as Obama's deputy Secretary of State during the rapprochement with Cuba, said in his statement last month.

Blinken also said that the Biden administration "recommits to accompanying the Cuban people in your quest to determine your own future," and "will support those improving the lives of families and workers, cuentapropistas who have forged their own economic paths, and all who are building a better Cuba – and a better tomorrow for themselves in Cuba."

The term cuentapropistas refers to non-state workers with whom the U.S. has sought to build bridges despite the geopolitical tensions between the two nations.

The U.S. has long accused the Cuban government and the Castro family which has dominated the country's politics since the 1959 revolution of perpetrating human rights abuses. These allegations were featured in the State Department's latest annual human rights report released in March and include oppression, censorship and arbitrary detention, torture and executions.

Pedroso defended his country's human rights record, for which he said Cuba "has sufficient grounds to feel proud." He acknowledged existing issues in this field but at the same time contended that the country was well-equipped to tackle them. He also said Washington too was guilty of abuses that Havana would like to see addressed.

"Our challenges in terms of human rights, like those of any other country, are known to our people and our government and we will continue to work on their solution on the basis of our Constitution," he said. "But Cuba is equally concerned about the human rights situation in the United States. Flagrant violations are committed here on a daily basis, which arouse concern within the international community."

Pedroso said his country was willing to discuss human rights with the Biden administration as "Cuba has never refused to engage in a civilized and respectful dialogue on these issues, which was demonstrated during the President Barack Obama administration."

In a milestone move following the Obama administration's outreach to Cuba, the U.S. abstained for the first time during the U.N. General Assembly's 2016 vote against the longstanding embargo. Abstention remains an option for Biden as well, though the ramifications for such a move would be felt not only in foreign policy, but domestically as well.

Many Republicans, including a strong bloc of Cuban Americans residing mainly in Florida, fiercely resist normalization with Cuba, even after Raúl Castro's handover of the Cuban Communist Party leadership to President Miguel Díaz-Canel in April marked the first time in the country's post-revolutionary history that a Castro has not held a formal position of power. Biden lost last year to Trump in Florida, a key battleground state with potential to decide elections.

Also complicating a path toward more robust U.S.-Cuba relations are the two countries' support for rival sides of Venezuela's political crisis, where Biden too has followed in Trump's footsteps by cutting off Cuba-allied socialist President Nicolás Maduro in favor of opposition-controlled National Assembly head Juan Guaidó, as well as the reports of mysterious "sonic attacks" said to have targeted U.S. staff at the Havana embassy in 2016 and are currently being investigated by the Biden administration.

At the same time, an increasingly vocal U.S. contingent, also including Cuban Americans, has emerged calling for restoring ties with the island nation. Organizations such as Bridges of Love and other solidarity groups have staged rallies, protests and caravans nationwide in hopes of pushing the Biden administration to soften its strategy.

Ultimately, Pedroso said he looked here, and at what he hoped tomorrow would be another overwhelming rebuke of the embargo, to determine what Biden's next steps would be on Cuba.

"The people of the United States, who wish to maintain a normal relationship with Cuba, including the majority of Cubans living in this country, and the peoples of the world will be the chief judges of what the Biden administration does or does not do with respect to Cuba," Pedroso said.

Hands, Off, Cuba, caravan, Los, Angeles
Members of the U.S. Hands off Cuba Committee rally with a car caravan past Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), in Los Angeles, California on June 20. The group showed support for the United Nations vote to end the U.S. blockade against Cuba, planned for June 23, 2021, and to call on President Joe Biden normalize diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba. DAVID MCNEW/AFP/Getty Images

This article has been updated to include a statement by a State Department spokesperson.