US expands sanctions in Cuba, eyes restoring diplomatic presence, internet access

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The Biden administration on Friday announced additional sanctions on Cuba, but also pushed ahead with plans to expand U.S. diplomatic presence and provide internet service to the island nation following widespread protests earlier this month.

“I want the Cuban Americans to know that we — all around this table and myself included — see your pain, we hear your voices, and we hear the cries of freedom coming from the island,” President Biden said at a meeting Friday with Cuban American leaders.

“We’re going to continue to add sanctions on individuals that carry out the regime’s abuses.”

The sanctions, imposed under the Global Magnitsky Act, which allows the U.S. to seek financial punishment against human rights offenders, target Cuba’s National Revolutionary Police along with its head Oscar Callejas Valcarce and his deputy Eddy 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.”

The sanctions freeze any assets under U.S. jurisdiction and bar U.S. travel for the officials, but, given the longtime U.S. embargo, they offer more of a symbolic condemnation than providing practical restrictions.

They follow similar sanctions imposed on Álvaro López Miera, Cuba’s minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, as well as a special forces unit known as the Black Wasps.

“Part of it is to layer on sanctions,” a senior administration official said of Biden’s response to the protests. “But the other one is to make sure that 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.” 

Friday’s announcement came ahead of a White House meeting with Cuban American leaders as well as members of Congress to discuss further actions on Cuba, including expanding a U.S. diplomatic presence that was drastically reduced under the Trump administration and how to move forward with the complex process of trying to provide internet access in a country that has periodically shut down internet service in the face of the protests. 

“Given the protests of July 11, it is important for U.S. diplomats to engage directly with the Cuban people. And if we can do that in a way that ensures the safety of US personnel, that is something that we will undertake,” a senior administration official said on a call with reporters ahead of the meeting.

The meeting follows days of protests outside the White House as well as increasing pressure from lawmakers to take a tough stance on Cuba while looking for ways to support the tens of thousands of protesters who gathered in 45 cities earlier this month amid food shortages and electric blackouts.

Biden also said he would explore ways to boost internet access on the island.

“You always know something is not going well when a country will not allow their people to be engaged in [and] be on the Internet,” he said, adding they Cubans should be able “to make their case known around the world.”

GOP lawmakers in particular have been pressing the administration to look for ways to provide outside internet access — a complex proposition.

“We have to explore any and all options — we have to exhaust any and all options — to provide internet connectivity,” the official said on the call.

“There are no silver bullets. If it’s something that couldn’t be done easily,” the official added. “It would have been done already in places like Iran, and in other closed regimes. But we see censorship of information as a violation of human rights.”

-Updated 7 p.m.

Tags Cuba Cuba protests Joe Biden

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