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The Obama administration on Wednesday defended the long-running U.S. economic embargo against Cuba in the face of another overwhelming U.N. General Assembly vote condemning American policy toward the island nation. But administration officials also stressed efforts to reach out to the Cuba's communist government.
The Obama administration says it has broken with its predecessors in opening dialogue with Cuba on several fronts. But it also says it does not intend to reward Havana by lifting sanctions until it improves human rights conditions.
The comments followed an overwhelming vote in the U.N. General Assembly on a non-binding resolution condemning the 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba and urging Washington lift the restrictions.
This is the 18th consecutive year that the assembly has gone on record against U.S. Cuba policy. The number of countries supporting the United States on the matter has dwindled over the years.
Wednesday's resolution was 187 votes in favor, three against and two abstentions. Only Israel and the Pacific island state of Palau sided with the United States. Two other Pacific states, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands, abstained.
Addressing the assembly, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez called the embargo an "act of arrogance" and said it has cost the Cuban economy tens-of-billions of dollars over the years and deprived children of needed medical care.
The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations said it is wrong to blame U.S. sanctions for deprivation in Cuba. While calling the Cuban statement hostile and reminiscent of the Cold War, Susan Rice said the Obama administration is committed to trying to write a new chapter in relations with Cuba by engaging the Havana government.
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Briefing reporters here, State Department Spokesman Ian Kelly said the "annual exercise" in the General Assembly obscures the fact that the United States is a leading source of food and humanitarian relief aid to Cuba.
He said that since taking office in January, the Obama administration has eased various restrictions and opened new dialogue on migration and postal links.
But Kelly said the administration wants to see improvement in human rights conditions and respect for fundamental freedoms in Cuba before it will consider normalized relations.
"The suggestion that were not assisting Cuba is just false. We are one of the major providers of humanitarian assistance to Cuba. But we don't believe that while there are repressive measures in place in Cuba that we should reward the government of Cuba by lifting the economic sanctions that could assist the government of Cuba in its repression of its own citizens."
Amid pressure from U.S. farm states, the Bush administration eased restrictions on sales of agricultural goods to Cuba. Spokesman Kelly said U.S. exports of food, lumber and medical items to Cuba exceeded $700 million last year.
The Obama administration has lifted limits on travel and remittances to Cuba by Cuban-Americans and initiated talks on reinstating direct postal service between the two countries for the first time since 1963.
Last month, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Bisa Williams became the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Cuba in several years. Her trip to Havana was ostensibly to discuss the postal issue, but she extended her mission and had broader talks with Cuban officials.