Protestors Rally After a U.N. Vote on the Cuban Embargo

Dozens of demonstrators carrying “Viva Fidel” signs, Che Guevara posters and Cuban flags rallied in front of the United Nations General Assembly building Wednesday afternoon to protest the United States vote against a U.N. resolution condemning the Cuban embargo.

The U.S. imposed a diplomatic, economic and financial embargo against Cuba in 1962. Former President Barack Obama’s administration restored diplomatic relations but the trade embargo is still in place. President Donald Trump announced new restrictions earlier this year. Tensions between the two countries increased several months ago after U.S. Embassy employees in Havana reported mysterious hearing problems.

The General Assembly has tried to pass a resolution calling for the end of the embargo against Cuba since 1992 but the U.S. has always voted against it – except in 2016, when the U.S. abstained. This year, though, the U.S. opposed the resolution again, for the 25th time.

“This policy has known universal opposition around the world,” said Michael Bustamante, assistant professor of Latin American history at Florida International University, and a specialist of Cuban-American relations. “It’s had incredibly damaging long-term effects on Cuban economy and people. So it’s been criticized as immoral, but also, as just simply impractical. The embargo gives the U.S. no leverage to try to provoke a kind of changes in Cuba that it supposedly wants to see.”

In a 10-minute speech before the General Assembly Wednesday morning, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., described the embargo as a tool to enhance democracy and human rights in Cuba.

“This assembly does not have the power to end the U.S. embargo,” she said.  “What the General Assembly is doing today – and does every time at this year — is political theater.” Only the U.S. Congress has the power to rescind the embargo.

A few hours after her speech, between 30 and 100 people protested, according to police officials and The Solidarity Movement with Cuba, the organization behind the rally.

“I was shaking with rage,” said Amy Belles, 57, originally from Colombia, who attended with her 8-year-old grandson. “This woman was like: ‘We’re the kings in the world, and you have to accept it, and do whatever we want.’”

Belles, a nurse, said she has traveled to Cuba several times and was terrified by the lack of medicine there. The embargo restricted the sale of medicine and medical equipment, among other things.

“The U.S. uses the human rights argument, but it’s a trap,” said Harold Cardenas, a Cuban student who arrived in New York a month ago. “They speak about our limited political participation, but that’s just a reaction. We just don’t want the U.S .to finance our campaign and the opposition. It’s the same as if Russia financed Trump’s campaign here. Nobody would like it.”

One demonstrator sold pins with Che Guevara pictures and messages against Cuba embargo. (The Ink/ Marie Gentric)

This year, the Cuban government estimated that U.S. trade restriction had cost the country $126 billion since the start of the embargo. According to a 2015 Pew Research poll, 97 percent of Cuban people want normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations. And according to a Pew poll last year, 75 percent of Americans also appear to be in favor of the rapprochement between the two countries.

“If the American people had a vote, instead of the Trump Administration, the vote would have been 192 to 0,” said Ike Nahem, an organizer of the rally. “They represent nothing, and nobody, but they persist with it.”

Cuban President Raul Castro has said he will step down in 2018, at the end of his second term, and some analysts have said that his departure could provide a political window to lift the embargo.

But this view is too optimistic, according to William Leogrande, professor of government and a specialist in Latin American politics and U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America at the American University in Washington, D.C. Leogrande predicted that the embargo won’t end during the Trump administration.

“Trump feels that he owes a political debt to conservative Cuban-Americans,” he said. “They are the only constituency in the U.S. that still opposes engagement with Cuba, but they supported Trump in the election. He feels that their support made the difference in Florida, as he made them a promise to reverse Obama’s policy.”