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The U.S. on Friday issued sanctions against the Cuban National Revolutionary Police and its two top officials for their role in the violent crackdown of anti-government protesters in Cuba, a move that came ahead of a White House meeting between President Joe Biden and Cuban American activists.
“The Cuban Americans are hurting. They’re hurting because their loved ones are suffering,” President Biden said at beginning of the meeting late afternoon. “And it’s quite frankly intolerable. So I want the Cuban Americans to know that we all around this table and myself included see your pain, we hear voices, we hear the cries of freedom coming from the island.”
Earlier, the Department of the Treasury used the Global Magnitsky act to blacklist the police agency, its director Oscar Alejandro Callejas Valcarce and its deputy, Eddy Manuel Sierra Arias.
“The Treasury Department will continue to designate and call out by name those who facilitate the Cuban regime’s involvement in serious human rights abuse,” said director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control Andrea M. Gacki. “Today’s action serves to further hold accountable those responsible for suppressing the Cuban people’s calls for freedom and respect for human rights.”
Persons and organizations added to OFAC’s Specially Designated Nationals And Blocked Persons list have their assets frozen and can’t travel to the U.S.
President Biden said more sanctions were coming unless “drastic changes” took place in Cuba. He said his administration was pursuing “every available option to provide internet access and help the Cubans bypass the censorship that is being imposed” by Cuban authorities.
He also said the U.S. was expanding assistance to political prisoners dissidents and that he asked State Department and Treasury to provide within a month recommendations on “how to maximize the flow on remittances to the Cuban people without the Cuban military taking in their cut.”
Without further details, the president said the administration was working to increase U.S. staffing at the embassy in Havana “while prioritizing the safety” of U.S. personnel.
As he emerged from the White House after the meeting to board Marine One, Biden did not offer a clear response to a reporter’s question about whether he planned to reopen travel to Cuba. As he met with the activists, a group of Cuban American protesters gathered outside the White House — as they have for the past three weeks — to call for a more hard-line response from the administration.
Internet access ‘challenging’
In a call with reporters, a senior administration official said the administration was looking at authorizing a range of options to provide internet access but that it was “challenging” since satellite and balloon technology can be blocked by the Cuban government. The administration was also considering VPN technology that allows users to circumvent censorship efforts.
“There is no silver bullet,” he said. “If it was something that could have been done easily, it would have been done already.”
The senior official mentioned the administration was looking at initiatives that have worked to allow the interim government of Venezuela to send money directly to the people in the country, as an example of what could be done to allow money transfers to the Cuban people.
The official said the president was receiving daily updates about the situation in Cuba and that the administration wants to keep Cuba “on the front burner.”
Biden met with members of the Cuban American community, including Felice Gorordo, CEO of eMerge Americas and co-founder of Roots of Hope; Maria Carla Chicuen, executive director of CasaCuba at Florida International University; Ana Sofia Pelaez, co-founder of the Miami Freedom Project; her sister, the playwright and Democratic activist Carmen Pelaez; Ric Herrero, executive director of the Cuba Study Group, Marley Pulido, Co-founder, La Luchita Project & Cubanos Pa’Lante; musician Emilio Estefan; and Manny Diaz, former Miami mayor and chair of the Florida Democratic Party. The White House has also invited Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Gregory Meeks.
Also invited was Madrid-based Yotuel Romero, lead singer of Cuban hip-hop group Orishas and principal author of Patria y Vida, a song that has become an anthem for the protesters. None of the participants were immediately available for comment.
Pressure from exiles
The meeting took place after pressure coming from Cuban American exiles to do more to support Cubans on the island. On July 11, thousands took to the streets to protest against the communist government throughout the country. According to Cubalex, a legal aid organization helping dissidents on the island, there are 547 people currently detained, and 164 have been released.
Last week, Biden put out a statement condemning the detentions and summary trials to punish the demonstrators and imposed sanctions on the head of the Cuban armed forces and the Black Berets, a special forces unit deployed to suppress the uprising. He also said he ordered his administration to work with civil society organizations and the private sector to find ways to circumvent the regime’s internet censorship efforts.
According to a national poll of voters conducted by Republican firm Echelon Insights, there’s little downside for the administration to show public support for the protesters in Cuba and providing internet to the people on the island, issues that generate bipartisan support.
Plans to seek ways to reestablish remittances and consular services on the island seem more controversial. The administration might suffer backslash from many Cuban Americans who perceive those efforts as granting concessions to the Cuban government.
Just a few days after the protests, President Biden said he did not support reestablishing official remittance channels “because of the fact it’s highly likely that the regime would confiscate those remittances or big chunks.” But in a later statement, he said the administration was “reviewing our remittance policy to determine how we can maximize support to the Cuban people.”
Western Union money transfer services to Cuba were suspended after the Trump administration sanctioned the Cuban military entity handling remittances, Fincimex. The U.S. left the possibility of continuing the service through a non-military Cuban bank, but the Cuban government refused the change.
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-NJ, a key administration ally on priority issues and the powerful foreign affairs committee chairman, made clear in a recent speech that he doesn’t favor resuming remittances, indicating the challenges ahead for the administration on this issue.
Security issues also complicate resuming services at the embassy in the Cuban capital, as what and who is behind the “Havana syndrome” mystery remains under investigation by several federal agencies.
Frustration with meetings
White House officials have been meeting with leaders in the Cuban American community in the past few weeks to seek ideas on how to support the Cuban people. But the meetings have frustrated Cuba watchers in Miami and Washington.
“If this is Cuba’s moment, then those people on the island deserve better than a fancy event with air conditioning,” said Jason Poblete, a Washington, D.C., lawyer and president of Global Liberty Alliance, an organization providing legal aid to some of the protesters currently in jail. “This is all about Florida politics, and it is a shame.”
Poblete said the president could speed up policy actions through executive actions instead of creating “task forces” to study responses. “The president needs to mobilize allies in the region, and why is he not telling Putin and Xi, ‘hands-off Cuba?’”
“All I have seen from most American politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, is political posturing and not action,” he added.
The White House said working with international allies to put more pressure on the island’s government was another policy goal, and the efforts have already shown some results.
Countries like Canada and other European allies with economic interests in Cuba, such as Spain, France and the UK, did not sign up for a joint statement released on Monday by the U.S. and 20 Latin American and European nations condemning the mass arrests and detentions of protesters in Cuba. But on Thursday, the European Union members put out their own forceful condemnation of the government repression. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken raised events in Cuba with the Spanish foreign minister on a Thursday call.
“I think there is a difference between these PR meetings that are a failure and are not serious and the policies that the State Department is beginning to implement,” said Miami Democratic Spanish radio host Roberto Rodriguez Tejera
He said he didn’t understand why Cuban Americans’ elected Florida officials, primarily Republican, have not been invited by the White House.
“It is a shame,” he said. “Most of the people invited are not representative of the Cuban people. There hasn’t been an opportunity to speak with a dissident on the island, Yoani Sanchez, Berta Soler, or anyone, really.”
“The problem is in Cuba,” he added, “not in Miami.”
McClatchy DC reporters Michael Wilner and Bryan Lowry contributed to this story