For the first time ever, the U.S. will abstain when the U.N. votes against its embargo on Cuba. That’s a big deal.

Oct 26 '16
(FILES) This file photo taken on October 13, 2016 shows US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power speaking during the ceremony for the appointment of the Secretary-General during the 70th session of the General Assembly at the United Nations in New York. The United States will for the first time abstain from a vote at the United Nations calling for an end to the US embargo against Cuba, Ambassador Samantha Power said October 26, 2016. "The United States has always voted against this resolution. Today the United States will abstain," Power told the General Assembly, drawing loud applause. / AFP PHOTO / DON EMMERTDON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images
Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, speaks during 70th session of the General Assembly at the United Nations on Oct. 13 in New York. (Don Emmert/Agence France Press via Getty Images)

Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, announced that the United States will abstain from today’s U.N. vote that calls on Washington to end its embargo on Cuba. This is a big deal. This vote has been held since 1992. The United States has voted against it every year.

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The problem is that very few other countries have agreed. Support for the U.S. position peaked in the mid-2000s when Palau and the Marshall Islands joined Israel and the United States in opposition to the resolution. Since then, even the support of these tiny island nations could no longer be assured. Last year, only the United States and Israel voted against the resolution. Not one country abstained.

VOETEN CubaAbstentions matter. U.N. General Assembly resolutions are nonbinding, and the United States does not have a legal obligation to implement the resolution. Yet these resolutions can have symbolic value, especially if they are adopted with overwhelming consensus. Governments are publicly expressing their opposition to a key U.S. policy and have done so for a long time. In the early 1990s, European countries moderated their stance by abstaining rather than publicly denouncing U.S. policy. As the memory of the Cold War receded, few countries continued this route.

Now the United States, which earlier this year reopened its embassy in Havana, no longer publicly opposes a resolution titled “Necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba.” The U.S. delegation tried to change the language but to no avail.

While this vote has no immediate policy implications, the Obama administration clearly expresses its opinion in front of the world that the embargo should be ended, which can only be done through an act of Congress. That is a big deal.

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