The United States imposed sanctions on a Cuban security minister and a special forces unit of the Interior Ministry for alleged human rights abuses in a crackdown on anti-government protests this month.
The move marked the first concrete steps by the Joe Biden administration to pressure the communist government of Cuba, which faces calls from US lawmakers and the Cuban-American community to show greater support for the largest protests to hit the island in decades.
The speed with which the administration has crafted new sanctions indicates that Biden is highly unlikely to soften the US approach to Cuba shortly after his predecessor, Donald Trump, rolled back a historic Obama-era détente with Havana. .
“This is just the beginning,” Biden said in a statement, expressing his condemnation of “mass arrests and mock trials.”
“The United States will continue to punish those responsible for the oppression of the Cuban people,” he said.
Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez, in a message on Twitter, rejected the sanctions as “baseless and slanderous” and urged the United States to apply such measures to its own record of “systematic repression and police brutality.”
The Department of Finance said that the sanctions were imposed on an entire security unit of the Ministry of the Interior and General Álvaro López Miera, minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, and described him as the leader of an entity “whose members have incurred serious violations of human rights ”.
Thousands of Cubans held protests a week ago to demonstrate against an economic crisis that has brought shortages of basic goods and power outages. They were also protesting the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and restrictions on civil liberties. Hundreds of activists were arrested.
Biden had vowed during the 2020 campaign to reverse some of Trump’s policies toward Cuba, but Thursday’s announcement suggests little appetite for a return to rapprochement.
At the same time, the administration says it is still looking for ways to alleviate the difficult humanitarian situation of the Cuban people.
The White House said Tuesday that Biden would form a task force to examine remittances to Cuba in the wake of the protests. The goal is to determine how Cuban Americans can send money to families on the island while keeping the funds out of the reach of the Cuban government.
Trump had imposed strict restrictions on remittances, previously believed to have amounted to several billion dollars annually.
The White House, in a statement, warned that the issue of remittances is complex and “requires a measured and thoughtful approach in coordination with experts.”
Biden reiterated Thursday that his administration was looking for ways to help ordinary Cubans regain Internet access after Havana restricted access to social media and messaging platforms, including Facebook and WhatsApp.
“We will work closely with our partners throughout the region, including the Organization of American States, to put pressure on the regime,” Biden said.
The Cuban government has blamed the protests primarily on what it calls “counterrevolutionaries” financed by the United States who exploit the economic difficulties caused by the US sanctions.
The sanctions were imposed under the Global Magnitsky Act, used to punish human rights violators with US asset freezes and travel bans to the United States.
But US officials have acknowledged that Cuban officials rarely have financial dealings with the US and rarely travel to the US, limiting the practical impact of such measures.
The unrest appears to have injected a new sense of urgency into Biden’s sweeping review of Cuba policy, which began shortly after he took office in January. Until now, Cuba had not been treated as a main item on the agenda as the administration dealt with the economic recovery and the coronavirus pandemic in the country and challenges like China, Russia and Iran abroad.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism