Cuban leader Miguel Díaz-Canel used the spotlight at the United Nations general debate session on Tuesday to lash out at the United States’ economic sanctions against the island, calling it a “ruthless economic war” with “brutal” effects.
But notably, he did not mention Russia in his speech, despite his several public comments justifying and supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a telling sign of the fine line Cuba is straddling on the international arena.
While Cuba remains a close political and military ally of Russia, the country now has to speak as temporary chairman of the G-77, a group of 134 UN member nations wary about the consequences the war is having on their countries.
Miguel Díaz-Canel brought up several issues other leaders from developing countries were expected to raise, calling for debt relief, a reform of the international financial institutions and more urgent action to deal climate change.
Then, he started bashing the United States.
“For 60 years Cuba has suffered a suffocating economic blockade,” an “inhumane policy” he blamed for the shortages of food and medicines on the island. He said Cuba was not a national security threat to the U.S, and that the American government lied when it concluded that Cuba sponsors terrorism.
He ended his speech with the traditional Cuban slogan “Venceremos,” — We will prevail — without mentioning the war in Ukraine. The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, was in attendance earlier in the morning for President Joe Biden’s address and was scheduled to speak to fellow leaders later on Tuesday.
Galvanizing support for Ukraine was a central theme in President Biden’s speech, in which he urged foreign leaders to reject Russia’s violations of the principles of the U.N. Charter.
“Russia believes that the world will grow weary and allow it to brutalize Ukraine without consequence,” Biden said. “If we allow Ukraine to be carved up, is the independence of any nation secure? The answer is no. We must stand up to this naked aggression today to deter other would-be aggressors tomorrow.”
Díaz-Canel spoke instead of the “unilateral coercive measures” powerful countries used to subjugate others and rejected sanctions against Venezuela, Syria and North Korea, again remaining silent on Russia, which is also under sanctions by the United States and other countries over its war on Ukraine.
President Biden was not in the room for Díaz-Canel’s address.
While his trip has received little attention in the United States — and so far he has not scored high-profile bilateral meetings — Díaz-Canel has said one of his primary goals is to prove the island is not isolated diplomatically.
Though he did not secure foreign support capable of helping lift Cuba out of its severe economic crisis, the Cuban leader came to New York emboldened by his recent foreign tours abroad and his presiding of a recent summit in Havana of the G-77 plus China. There, he rubbed shoulders with the U.N. Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, and the presidents of Brazil and Colombia, two of the largest South American nations and important U.S. partners, who publicly advocated for lifting the U.S. embargo and removing Cuba from the list of countries that sponsor terrorism.
“Anyone who thinks that Cuba is isolated, their argument has collapsed,” Díaz-Canel told diplomats and employees at the Cuban mission to the United Nations shortly after he landed on Sunday.
Cuban diplomats, who for decades have been very active at the U.N, securing a yearly declaration condemning the embargo, said they wanted to make the most of the momentum to hammer criticism of “unilateral coercive measures against any country, as well as all colonialist, hegemonist, interfering and discriminatory practices in international relations,” said Rodolfo Benítez Verson, an official at the Cuban Foreign Ministry.
The president of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and President Gustavo Petro of Colombia, supported Cuba’s call for relief from the U.S. sanctions.
“Brazil will continue to denounce measures adopted without the cover of the United Nations Charter, such as the economic and financial embargo imposed on Cuba and any attempt to classify this country as a state that sponsors terrorism,” Lula said.
Petro said Cuba was “unjustly blocked” and the victim of “a former Colombian president,” a reference to Ivan Duque, with whom he has been sparring on X over Petro’s support of Fidel and Raúl Castro. At the beginning of his U.N. address, Petro blamed Duque for “suggesting” the inclusion of Cuba on the U.S. list of countries that sponsor terrorism “just because it helped to make peace in Colombia.”
The context for that remark was Cuba’s past statement that as a mediator in the Colombian peace process, it could not extradite leaders of a terrorist guerrilla group, the ELN, that Duque accused of having ordered a terrorist attack in Bogota in 2019. Citing Cuba’s refusal at the time, the Trump administration placed Cuba again on the list of countries that sponsor terrorism in January 2020.
Historically, presenting itself as a tiny victim of a mighty imperial neighbor has been a winning message for Cuba in the United Nations, where its savvy diplomacy has secured the island’s government, known for its repressive policies against dissidents and for currently holding more than 1,000 political prisoners, a seat at the U.N. Human Rights Council.
Cuba is running for reelection next month.
But human rights activists said Tuesday they had collected 2,200 signatures of people calling for the expulsion of Cuba from the Human Rights Council. They also said they had asked the Biden administration to sanction Díaz-Canel for violating human rights on the island.
“Thousands of people around the world are asking that Cuba not be a member of the U.N. Human Rights Council, taking into account that repression has increased over the past four years on the island,” said John Suarez, executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba. “The Cuban dictatorship and its representative Díaz-Canel are criminals who must be held accountable and not received at the United Nations.”