British rift with US over Cuba voting

In an extraordinary diplomatic breach with its closest ally, Britain yesterday joined all of its European Union partners in siding against the United States in voting for a resolution at the United Nations calling for an end to the three-decade-long American economic embargo of Cuba. The vote was a landmark in the development of a common European foreign policy.

The dramatic turnaround by Britain and other EU members in a vote at the UN General Assembly was triggered by widespread anger at the US over its recent passage of the so-called Helms-Burton Act, which seeks to penalise foreign companies doing business inside Cuba. The EU has asked the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to declare the legislation illegal.

Approval by the General Assembly of a resolution calling for an end to the US embargo has become an annual ritual that serves to embarrass Washington.Until now, however, Britain and other EU states, including, last year Germany and the Netherlands, have abstained.

Yesterday, however, marked the first time that the EU has adopted a common position on the issue, voting in favour of the Cuban resolution. "This is the first time we have voted as a block in this, and it reflects our common opposition to Helms-Burton," a senior diplomat said.

In a joint statement, the EU said it remained critical of the regime of Fidel Castro and that it recognised that the economic plight in Cuba remained in part of the regime's making. It went on, however, to castigate the US for adopting the Helms-Burton Act. The EU has joined a chorus of foreign protest at the legislation, led also by Canada and Mexico, on the grounds that it represents an illegal extension of US law to foreign countries.

In the bluntly worded statement, the EU declared: "We cannot accept that the United States may unilaterally determine or restrict the European Union's economic and commercial relations with any other state. Measures of this type violate the general principles of international law and the sovereignty of independent states."

Victor Marrero, US representative to the assembly, swiftly fired back, however. "By introducing this resolution ... Cuba has manipulated the concerns of countries around the world to claim support for its reprehensible policies of intolerance and oppression."

The vote comes as one more humiliation in what has already been an unusually difficult week for the US at the United Nations. Only days ago, the US also found itself the victim of hostility over its debt to the UN as well as its efforts to unseat the Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros Ghali, when, for the first time in the UN's history, Washington was denied a seat on the organisation's most important budgetary committee.

Cuba's vice-president, Carlos Lage Davila, said the assembly had voted "not only against a policy that is unfair, but also to make sure that no state, however powerful, may be able to ignore international law".

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