WASHINGTON: The United States on Thursday (Jul 22) imposed sanctions on a senior Cuban security official and an interior ministry special forces unit for alleged human rights abuses in a crackdown on anti-government protests earlier this month.
The move marked the first concrete steps by President Joe Biden’s administration to apply pressure on Cuba’s Communist government as it faces calls from US lawmakers and the Cuban-American community to show greater support for the biggest protests to hit the island in decades.
The speed with which the administration has crafted new sanctions further signals Biden is highly unlikely to soften the US approach to Cuba any time soon after his predecessor, Donald Trump, rolled back a historic Obama-era detente with Havana.
The US Treasury Department said in a statement that sanctions had been placed on the Interior Ministry security unit and on General Alvaro Lopez Miera, minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces.
Thousands of Cubans staged 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 curbs on civil liberties. Hundreds of activists were detained.
Biden had promised during the 2020 campaign to reverse some of Trump’s Cuba policies, but Thursday’s announcement suggests little appetite for a return to rapprochement.
At the same time, the administration is still seeking ways to ease the humanitarian plight of the Cuban people.
The White House said on Tuesday that Biden would form a working group to examine remittances to Cuba in the wake of the protests. The aim 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 imposed tight restrictions on remittances, which are believed to have previously amounted to several billions of dollars annually.
Biden has also said his administration is looking for ways to help ordinary Cubans regain internet access after Havana restricted access to social media and messaging platforms including Facebook and WhatsApp.
The Cuban government has blamed the protests mostly on what it calls US-financed “counter-revolutionaries” exploiting economic hardship caused by US sanctions.
The sanctions were imposed under the Global Magnitsky Act, used to punish human rights violators with US asset freezes and bans on travel to the United States, a person familiar with the matter told Reuters.
But US officials have acknowledged that Cuban officials rarely have US financial dealings and seldom travel to the United States, limiting the practical impact of such measures.
“Addressing this moment was a priority for the administration, and for President Biden,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told a daily briefing. “Sanctions authority was a part of those considerations.”
NEW SENSE OF URGENCY
The unrest appears to have injected a new sense of urgency into Biden’s broad Cuba policy review, which began shortly after he took office in January. Until now, Cuba had not been treated as a top agenda item while the administration dealt with the economic recovery and coronavirus pandemic at home and challenges such as China, Russia and Iran abroad.
Cuba, a State Department official told Reuters, is now a “top priority”.
Analysts say conciliatory moves are unlikely in the near term. Complicating matters was Biden’s poorer-than-expected showing with voters in south Florida’s anti-communist Cuban-American community, which backed Trump’s tough policies toward Havana and Caracas and helped him win the battleground state.
Many analysts say Biden may have to tread carefully on Cuba policy ahead of the 2022 congressional elections.