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US imposes new Cuba sanctions over crackdown on protesters

The Treasury Department sanctions target Cuba’s defense minister and a special forces brigade in response to the arrest of hundreds of antigovernment protesters.

WASHINGTON (CN) — President Joe Biden on Thursday condemned the mass detention of antigovernment protesters in Cuba, slapping sanctions on an agency and an official deemed responsible for suppressing the demonstrations.

“The Cuban people have the same right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly as all people,” Biden said in a statement. “The United States stands with the brave Cubans who have taken to the streets to oppose 62 years of repression under a communist regime.”

Protests in Havana erupted on July 11, with splintering demonstrations spawning throughout the island the same day. Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel initially supported the demonstrations, but by the following morning denounced the groups as criminals who had looted and vandalized businesses.

More than 500 people are reported to have been arrested in those demonstrations, with Cuban government officials also lopping off phone and internet connections to quell the unrest. Demonstrators rallied against a lack of access to basic goods and services, including Covid-19 vaccines.

The U.S. Treasury Department said the new sanctions were issued pursuant to the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which “targets perpetrators of serious human rights abuse and corruption” worldwide.

They specifically target Cuban Minister of Defense Alvaro Lopez Miera for his role in the suppression of protests, as well as a special forces brigade known as Brigada Especial Nacional, part of the Cuban Ministry of the Interior.

The Biden administration called for the release of all Cubans detained over the demonstrations and said it was collaborating with private sector partners to restore internet access to the island. It also condemned any limitation on access to information “which restricts the exercise of human rights and disrupts access to essential services.”

Biden said the U.S. is reexamining restrictions on Americans transferring money on Cuban relatives, which has been restrained by 60 years of U.S. policy. On Monday, he directed a workgroup to take a new look at the so-called remittances to Cuba in light of the protests.

Organizations like the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida have called for an end to the remittance ban. Its president, Michael Calderin, urged the president to act quickly.

“I’m fortunate enough to not have family on the island and can only imagine the anxiety and panic felt by Cuban-Americans who are not able to see or help their loved ones,” Calderin said in a statement. “Had the Trump administration continued to improve relations with Cuba instead of rolling back the Obama-era improvements, everyday Cubans on the island and Cuban-Americans would be able to comfort each other.”

It is also chiefly important to restaff the Havana U.S. embassy, the White House said in a fact sheet. While noting that U.S. government personnel “have suffered grave injuries” while serving in Cuba, the administration said providing services for the Cuban people is essential under “dire circumstances under an oppressive authoritarian regime.”

Biden said in his statement that the latest sanctions are just the beginning, hinting more Cuban officials will be punished for repressing the demonstrations.

“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,” he said.

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