By Bernd Debusmann
(Reuters): What do the United States, Israel, the Marshall Islands and Palau have in common? Once a year, they vote against the rest of the world on a United Nations resolution calling for an end to the US embargo on Cuba.
The vote, four against 187 last year, speaks volumes about a bankrupt US policy and an obsession with Cuba so deep that its geriatric post-Fidel Castro leadership has come up as a topic in the American presidential election campaign more frequently than, say, Osama bin Laden or Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf.
When Cuba was a heavily-armed outpost of the Soviet empire just 90 miles from the American mainland, Washington's preoccupation with the island was grounded in rational fears.
But since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, US policy towards Cuba has looked increasingly mindless, counter-productive, and cruel towards a population made to suffer for the actions of a leadership they did not elect.
What the rest of the world thinks of Washington's hard line is reflected by UN General Assembly resolutions since 1992, when the world body first voted on the economic, commercial and financial embargo the US imposed on Cuba that year in retaliation for Havana's expropriation of US properties.
In the first year, there were 59 votes in favor of lifting the embargo, three against and 79 abstentions. The abstentions shrank year by year by year. For the past three, the one and only abstainer has been Micronesia (population 108,000), a group of Pacific islands difficult to find on the map. They depend entirely on US aid, as do the Marshall Islands (pop: 62,000) and Palau (pop: 21,000).
Israel, joined at the hip to the United States on most matters, has voted with the US from the beginning, a founding member of the coalition of the unwilling. That is, unwilling to vote against Washington for fear of incurring its displeasure and possibly a reduction in aid.
Successive US administrations, both Democratic and Republican, have explained hard-line policies on Cuba by saying it is the right way to deal with a Communist dictatorship that violates human rights, holds political prisoners and bars its citizens from traveling freely.
The Bush administration has shrugged off suggestions that the transition from Fidel Castro, 81, to his brother Raul, 77, provides an opening to a thaw in US-Cuban relations. President George W. Bush has described Raul Castro as "a tyrant who puts his people in prison because of their political beliefs."
Talking to him would give "great status to those who have suppressed human rights and human dignity." Those remarks came not long after another member of the Bush team, assistant secretary of state Christopher Hill, held out the prospect of normalizing ties with North Korea, the ultimate rogue state and human rights violator.
"In the context of full denuclearization, we would be prepared to establish full diplomatic relations," he told a Senate committee in February. No word on political prisoners and no word on repression. North Korea has since hosted the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the first ever such visit to a country with which the US is still officially at war.
As far as political prisoners go, China, too, is way ahead of Cuba, which holds at least 240, according to the US State Department's latest human rights report which was issued this week. The same report speaks of "tens of thousands" serving sentences in China, with which the US has close relations.
No matter. One of the frankest explanations for different rules for different countries, from Madeleine Albright when she was secretary of state in the Clinton administration, still holds true: "We don't have a cookie cutter approach to policy. China is a world power...Cuba is an embarrassment in the Western Hemisphere."
Washington rhetoric, then and now, skirted a key question: to what extent have sanctions and hard-line policies allowed Fidel Castro to stay in power by giving him an excuse to blame all of Cuba's many ills on the United States?
"WE'VE KEPT CASTRO IN POWER"
Here's one view, from a business leader the powerful Cuban-American community cannot accuse of being a crypto-Communist, Tom Donohue, head of the US Chamber of Commerce: "We have basically kept Castro in power...he used sanctions as a means to stay in power," he said in a recent television interview.
That assessment is shared by some of those who have suffered under the Communist regime.
"The policy of isolation and unilateral embargo maintained for 49 years against totalitarianism in Cuba has only encouraged the hardening of the regime and the repression of oppositionists, under the pretext of the danger posed by 'Yankee imperialism'," dissident journalist Miriam Leiva said in an e-mail from Havana.
Since Raul Castro became president, 24 US senators and 104 members of the House of Representatives have signed letters to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asking for a fresh look at Washington's restrictions on trade and travel.
This is unlikely to sway the outgoing Bush administration. Cuba policy has been reinforced repeatedly, but never really revised.
Why not? In the end, it is not a foreign policy issue but a matter of electoral policy -- and the outsize influence of anti-regime Cuban-Americans. Of the 1.5 million Cubans in the US, two-thirds live in Florida, a crucial state in tight elections.
Bush won there in 2000 with 537 votes, and with 381,000 votes in 2004 - after tightening restrictions on Cuba trade and travel during the election campaign. Whether the pledge by John McCain, the Republican nominee, to stay tough on Cuba will give him the edge in Florida in next November's vote remains to be seen. Many predictions in the 2008 campaign have turned out wrong.
But here's a safe prediction: when the United Nations next votes on the US embargo against Cuba, this autumn, there will be four votes against lifting it -- the US, Israel, the Marshall Islands, and Palau.
Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.