US imposes sanctions under the Magnitsky act on Cuba's officials over protest response

Photo: EPA Cuban-Americans participate in a demonstration to show support for protesters in Cuba, Miami, Florida, 21 July 2021.

The United States imposed sanctions on Cuba’s defense minister and a special forces unit on Thursday for repressing peaceful protests, news wires reported. “This is just the beginning—the United States will continue to sanction individuals responsible for oppression of the Cuban people,” Biden said in a statement, cited by AFP. The sanctions were imposed under the Magnitsky act, which allows a US president to take action against human rights abuses and corruption.

The US Treasury Department said its Office of Foreign Assets Control froze the assets of minister Alvaro Lopez Miera and the Special National Brigade (SNB), a division of Cuba’s interior ministry, in relation to human rights abuses committed during a crackdown on protests on the island earlier in July.

Thousands of Cubans took to the streets in 40 cities on 11 and 12 July shouting “Freedom,” “Down with the dictatorship,” and “We’re hungry.”One person has died and more than 100 have been arrested since the protests broke out over the worst economic crisis in decades.

According to the Treasury Department, Cuba’s defense ministry and security services attacked people and “arrested or disappeared over 100 protesters in an attempt to suppress these protests.”

Biden said his administration targeted Lopez Miera and the SNB—a special forces unit nicknamed the Black Berets—because they were “driving the crackdown” against protesters who took to the streets by the thousands in rare public demonstrations against the communist government. “As we hold the Cuban regime accountable, our support for the Cuban people is unwavering,” Biden said. The president also condemned what he called “the mass detentions and sham trials” used to imprison and silence outspoken Cubans.

Cuba pushed back swiftly, calling the sanctions “slanderous” and saying the United States should focus more on repression and police brutality on its own soil. “I reject unfounded and slanderous sanctions by the US government” against the Cubans targeted, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said on Twitter.

The sanctions freeze all Lopez Miera and SNB assets and interests in the United States, as well as prohibit any US citizen, resident or entity from engaging with them financially. “Treasury will continue to enforce its Cuba-related sanctions, including those imposed today, to support the people of Cuba in their quest for democracy and relief from the Cuban regime,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said.

Biden, for his part, said Washington was considering multiple new steps. The United States is working closely with regional partners like the Organization of American States “to pressure the regime to immediately release wrongfully detained political prisoners, restore internet access and allow the Cuban people to enjoy their fundamental rights,” he said.

Washington is also reassessing its policy guiding remittances to Cuba, with the State Department expressing concern that such funds could “find their way into Cuban government coffers,” according to spokesman Ned Price. Washington will “continue to review what more we can do” to support the Cuban people while holding the nation’s authorities to account, Price said.

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