U.S. President Joe Biden assailed the Cuban government Thursday for its crackdown on freedom protesters on the island nation and imposed sanctions on the head of the Cuban military and the internal security division that led the attacks on demonstrators.
“I unequivocally condemn the mass detentions and sham trials that are unjustly sentencing to prison those who dared to speak out in an effort to intimidate and threaten the Cuban people into silence,” Biden said in announcing the sanctions.
"The Cuban people have the same right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly as all people,” Biden said. “The United States stands with the brave Cubans who have taken to the streets to oppose 62 years of repression under a communist regime.”
Biden’s rebuke of Cuba’s actions is an about-face for him. He had promised to try to ease relations with the country that is a mere 145 kilometers from the U.S. coastal state of Florida after former President Donald Trump had taken a tough stance against Cuba.
The sanctions targeted Alvaro Lopez Miera, the Cuban minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, and the Cuban Ministry of the Interior’s Special National Brigade, also known as the Black Berets.
The sanctions, imposed under the U.S. Global Magnitsky Act, freeze any of the Cubans’ assets under U.S. jurisdiction and prohibit travel to the U.S. As a practical effect, the action serves to publicly name and shame Cuban officials for the crackdown.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken joined Biden in condemning the Cuban government’s response to the protests that started July 11. Hundreds of dissidents have been arrested in the most significant demonstrations in Cuba in decades. Many of the protesters remain out of touch with family members.
“The actions of the Cuban security forces,” Blinken said, “lay bare the regime’s fear of its own people and unwillingness to meet their basic needs and aspirations.”
He said Lopez Miera and the Special National Brigade “have been involved in suppressing the protests, including through physical violation and intimidation.”
Biden said Thursday’s sanctions and condemnation of the government of President Miguel Diaz-Canel were “just the beginning – the United States will continue to sanction individuals responsible for oppression of the Cuban people.”
“As we hold the Cuban regime accountable,” Biden said, “our support for the Cuban people is unwavering, and we are making sure Cuban Americans are a vital partner in our efforts to provide relief to suffering people on the island.”
The U.S. leader said his administration is “working with civil society organizations and the private sector to provide internet access to the Cuban people that circumvents the regime’s censorship efforts.”
In addition, Biden said the U.S. is reviewing its cash remittance policy to prevent theft of the money by Cuban officials. Expatriates have reported sending money to relatives in Cuba only to find that the government has pilfered it.
Biden said the U.S. is committed to increasing the size of its embassy staff in Havana to provide consular services to Cubans after all but 10 U.S. diplomats there were withdrawn in 2017 and 2018. Numerous envoys in Havana had complained of sonic attacks that left them physically impaired.
“Advancing human dignity and freedom is a top priority for my administration, and we will work closely with our partners throughout the region, including the Organization of American States, to pressure the regime to immediately release wrongfully detained political prisoners, restore internet access, and allow the Cuban people to enjoy their fundamental rights,” Biden said.