Jul 22, 2021 - Politics & Policy

U.S. sanctions Cuban officials over protest crackdown

President Biden outside of Air Force One in Hebron, Kentucky on July 21.

President Biden outside of Air Force One in Hebron, Kentucky on July 21. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration on Thursday imposed new sanctions against Cuban officials and entities allegedly responsible for human rights abuses during the government's crackdown on island-wide protests earlier this month.

Why it matters: The sanctions are Biden's first significant policy response to the crackdown by authorities during unrest in Cuba over widespread food and medicine shortages. The announcement came amid calls from Congress and Cuban Americans to increase pressure on the Communist government in support of the protesters.

  • The sanctions risk alienating progressives in Biden's party who called on the president to retract the U.S. embargo against Cuba and instead return to the Obama-era détente with the country.

The sanctions target the Cuban Minister of Defense Alvaro Lopez Miera and the National Special Brigade of the Ministry of the Interior, which the Biden administration said was "driving the crackdown."

  • Officials were sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act, which was initially created to curb human rights violations in Russia but was later expanded to include abuses around the world — including in China, Venezuela, Guatemala, Bulgaria and, now, Cuba.

What they're saying: "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 a statement Thursday.

  • "The Cuban people have the same right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly as all people. The United States stands with the brave Cubans who have taken to the streets to oppose 62 years of repression under a communist regime," he added.
  • "As we hold the Cuban regime accountable, 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 big picture: At least one protester died during demonstrations against the Cuban regime, though the government did not disclose the cause of the person's death.

  • Hundreds of other demonstrators were detained or have disappeared since protests began, according to exiled Cuban human rights groups.
  • Millions of protesters are using an anti-censorship tool supported by the U.S. government to circumvent the island's social media blackouts.

Biden was criticized by Republicans and the South Florida Cuban community for not publicly supporting the protests.

  • He did so a day after they ignited, saying they were a "clarion call for freedom and relief."
  • The president called on the Cuban regime "to hear their people and serve their needs at this vital moment rather than enriching themselves."

What's next: Biden said the new sanctions were "just the beginning" and warned that the U.S. would continue sanctioning "individuals responsible for oppression of the Cuban people."

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