WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden announced new sanctions on Thursday against a top Cuban official and a unit of the government’s repressive state security apparatus, which he believes was responsible for the brutal crackdown on historical protests this month all over the island.
Biden’s decision marks a shift in his campaign promises, as he vowed to restore the Obama-era thaw in US-Cuban policies. Government officials and Cuba experts say the unprecedented protests in Cuba have led to a change in Biden’s strategy and rhetoric about Cuba.
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“This is just the beginning — the United States will continue to punish those responsible for the oppression of the Cuban people,” Biden said in a statement on Thursday.
In Thursday’s action, the White House used a federal human rights law to impose sanctions Allvaro Lopez Miera, minister of Cuba’s Revolutionary Armed Forces, and a special brigade in the government’s intelligence ministry.
Critics of Cuba’s communist government welcomed the announcement, although it is not clear whether the sanctions will have much of an impact. Miera is unlikely to have assets in the United States that could be frozen by Thursday’s move. And the Trump administration had already blacklisted the Cuban Interior Ministry.
Ryan C. Berg, a senior fellow in the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the designations “indicate the important role the Cuban Department of the Interior plays in the state’s violent repression of the Cuban people.” .”
But, he said, they will have little practical effect.
“The sanctions architecture built around Cuba makes these designations completely redundant,” he said. “The sanctions are purely symbolic and intended to give the impression that the Biden administration is reacting quickly to the Cuban protests, when these actions are actually not doing much.”
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Biden said his advisers were working on other steps, including ways to restore Internet access for Cubans after the government blocked sites used to host the July 11 demonstrations.
“While we hold the Cuban regime accountable, our support for the Cuban people is unwavering, and we ensure that Cuban Americans are an essential partner in our efforts to provide emergency relief to the suffering people on the island,” Biden said on Thursday.
Thousands of Cubans took to the streets on July 11 to protest food and drug shortages, power outages and rising prices, sparking the largest protests on the communist island in three decades.
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As a result, the protesters were arrested and turned violent.
sen. Bob Menendez, chair of the foreign relations committee, said the Biden administration’s decision sends a clear signal to the Cuban government. “The US stands with the Cuban people and there will be consequences for those with blood on their hands,” the New Jersey Democrat wrote on Twitter.
Fernand Amandi, a political adviser and Cuban-American Democrat based in Florida, also praised the sanctions and Biden’s pledge for additional steps.
“These will be very well received not only among Cuban exiles around the world, but also among the international community who witnessed the abuses inflicted on the people of Cuba who simply asked for freedom and liberty,” Amandi said.
“These moves have real teeth and are changing the game on how the regime should be punished in the future,” he said. They will put pressure on the Cuban government, Amandi said, “while encouraging and empowering the protesters on the island.”
State Department spokesman Ned Price said he could not reveal whether certain individuals or entities had assets in the US.
Pressing the practical effect, Price said there was “an important message element” in the sanctions. “It is an important signal of our determination to hold those responsible accountable,” he said at a briefing on Thursday.
He stressed that other changes to US Cuba policy were being considered, including easing the limits on money transfers Cuban Americans can send to their relatives. Price said the Biden administration will only do so if it can ensure that none of the money ends up in the Cuban government’s coffers.
During the campaign, Biden promised to reverse the Trump administration’s harsh policy on Cuba. As vice president, Biden defended the Obama administration’s historic thaw in US-Cuba relations and vowed to restore the Obama administration’s softer approach by easing sanctions, travel restrictions and money transfer limits.
But the protests appear to have changed the Biden administration’s calculation.
“We made it clear last week that addressing this moment was a priority for the administration,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday.