The United States imposed sanctions on a Cuban security minister and an Interior Ministry special forces unit for alleged human rights violations as part of a crackdown on anti-government protests this month.
The move marked the first concrete steps by Joe Biden’s administration to put pressure on the Communist government of Cuba as it faces calls from U.S. lawmakers and the Cuban-American community to show greater support for more. major protests that have hit the island for decades.
The speed with which the administration has crafted new sanctions signals that Biden is highly unlikely to soften the US approach to Cuba soon after his predecessor, Donald Trump, called off a historic detente in l Obama era with Havana.
“This is just the start,” Biden said in a statement, expressing his conviction for “mass detentions and mock trials.”
“The United States will continue to sanction those responsible for the oppression of the Cuban people,” he said.
Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez in a Twitter post dismissed the sanctions as “unfounded and defamatory” and urged the United States to apply such measures to its own record of “systematic repression and police brutality” .
The Treasury Department said the sanctions were imposed on an entire Interior Ministry security unit and General Alvaro López Miera, Minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, describing him as the head of an entity “whose members have engaged in serious human rights violations ”.
Thousands of Cubans staged protests a week ago to protest an economic crisis that has resulted in commodity shortages and blackouts. They were also protesting against the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and restrictions on civil liberties. Hundreds of activists have been arrested.
Biden had promised during the 2020 campaign to overturn some of Trump’s Cuban policies, 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 humanitarian plight of the Cuban people.
The White House said Tuesday that Biden would form a task force to examine remittances to Cuba following 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 hands of the Cuban government.
Trump had placed strict restrictions on remittances, which previously amounted to billions of dollars a year.
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 across 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 US-funded “counterrevolutionaries” exploiting the economic hardship caused by US sanctions.
The sanctions were imposed under the Global Magnitsky Act, used to punish human rights violators by freezing US assets and banning travel to the United States.
But U.S. officials have acknowledged that Cuban officials rarely have financial relations with the United States and rarely travel to the United States, limiting the practical impact of such measures.
The unrest appears to have injected a new sense of urgency into Biden’s broad review of Cuban politics, which began shortly after he took office in January. Until now, Cuba had not been treated as a priority item on the agenda as the administration dealt with the economic recovery and the coronavirus pandemic at home and challenges such as China, Russia and Iran abroad.