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The Biden administration on Friday announced more targeted individual sanctions on Cuban regime officials and entities as the president met with a group of Cuban-American leaders to discuss his administration's response to recent historic anti-government protests on the communist-run island.
It comes after thousands of Cuban Americans on Monday protested in Washington to urge President Joe Biden to take swift action and do more to support the Cuban people following the island-wide protests. Demonstrations led by Cuban Americans have been ongoing in Washington, Miami and several cities around the country and world in the almost three weeks since protests in Cuba began on July 11.
The Biden administration has begun to roll out its Cuba strategy in recent days, including targeted sanctions on those in Cuba involved in human rights abuses and ongoing efforts to secure internet access and remittances for the Cuban people.
"We’re going to do everything we can to keep Cuba on the front burner” to keep the focus on the Cuban people and their right to protest peacefully, a senior administration official said in a call with reporters.
The Treasury Department on Friday slapped individual sanctions on the Cuban police force, known as the Policia Nacional Revolucionaria of the Cuban Interior Ministry, and two of its leaders — Oscar Callejas Valcarce and Eddy Sierra Arias. The sanctions were imposed under the Global Magnitsky Act, which allows the U.S. to impose economic sanctions on individuals believed to be engaged in human rights abuses and corruption.
Just before meeting with the Cuban American leaders, Biden on Friday called the situation in Cuba "intolerable" and said there are more sanctions to come "unless there's some drastic change in Cuba, which I don't anticipate."
Biden announced last week similar sanctions on the head of the armed forces in Cuba and the Cuban Ministry of the Interior’s Special National Brigade, known as the "black berets," for their involvement in the Cuban government’s crackdown. About 700 protesters have been arrested or are missing following the protests, activists on the island say.
Cuban officials and entities are already largely sanctioned by the U.S., so it’s unclear that Biden’s sanctions will have a significant impact on those targeted. But the senior administration official said it’s not only about holding accountable those responsible for the violent repression of protestors in Cuba, it’s also about sending a message to the international community and Cuban people.
“Part of it is to layer on sanctions,” the official said. “But the other one is to make sure we are keeping these individuals in the spotlight, not just on the international community, but that the Cuban people know that the United States is supporting them and is trying to defend them.”
Biden officials have also been exploring how to reestablish remittances and restaff the U.S. embassy in Havana to provide consular services.
Biden on Friday said the State and Treasury departments have been directed to "provide me, within one month, recommendations of how to maximize the flow of remittances to the Cuban people, without the Cuban military taking their cut." It comes after Biden earlier this month established a remittance working group to look into the issue.
Officials are looking at efforts that have worked in Venezuela to allow the interim government to send money directly to the people there, the senior official said.
The administration — including officials at the Commerce Department, Treasury Department and Federal Communications Commission — has been in discussions with private sector companies to see what options are available for providing internet connectivity on the island.
But administration officials have repeatedly said that they’re finding challenges as they study the legal and technical restrictions because many of the options being proposed are fairly easy to block. Biden officials are also discussing other ways, such as the use of virtual private networks, or VPNs, to allow Cubans on the island to circumvent censorship by the government.
“There are no silver bullets,” the senior administration official said. “If it’s something that could be done easily, it would have been done already in places like Iran and other closed regimes.”
Attendees at the meeting included: Manny Diaz, former Miami mayor and chair of the Florida Democratic Party; Yotuel Romero, singer of Cuban group Orishas and one of the main authors of Patria y Vida, a song that became a protest chant in Cuba; Felice Gorordo, CEO of eMerge Americas and co-founder of Roots of Hope; Ana Sofia Pelaez, co-founder of the Miami Freedom Project; and Ricardo Herrero, executive director of Cuba Study Group.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a top Cuban-American Democrat, and Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, were also invited to the meeting, the senior administration official said.
Biden’s meeting with Cuban American leaders comes after a series of meetings led by Cedric Richmond, senior White House adviser and director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, and Juan Gonzalez, the National Security Council’s senior director for the Western Hemisphere.
The administration is working to “make sure we keep the focus not on the United States or the conflict with the United States and Cuba, but rather on the Cuban people and the rights that they’re demanding — and the focus the international community needs to [have to] stand up for them,” the senior official said.
Earlier this week, the foreign ministers of the U.S. and 20 other countries, including Colombia, Greece and Israel, released a joint statement, condemning the mass arrests in Cuba and urging officials to release those detained, ensure press freedom and fully restore internet access. But U.S. allies, like Canada and Spain — both of which have close economic ties with Cuba — did not sign on.
On Thursday, Biden also announced he would nominate Frank Mora, a prominent Cuban American Democrat, to serve as U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States. If confirmed, Mora would be a leading figure involved in the administration’s policies towards the Western Hemisphere.
The Biden administration, however, could face challenges in getting Mora confirmed. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a Cuban American and the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Western Hemisphere subcommittee, on Thursday said he opposes Biden’s nomination of Mora, who supported the Obama-era engagement with Cuba.
Menendez, a key figure given his role as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has not decided whether or not he will support Mora, The Miami Herald reported.
Prior to the protests, Biden’s team repeatedly made clear that Cuba policy was not a foreign policy priority for the administration. But the protests on the island — the largest in decades — have forced Biden officials to speed up their efforts to develop a Cuba plan.