US places sanctions on head of Cuban military over protest crackdown

The US has imposed economic sanctions on the head of Cuba’s military in response to Havana’s crackdown on protesters, in an effort by Joe Biden to increase pressure on the communist regime.

The sanctions announced by the Treasury department on Thursday targeted Alvaro Lopez Miera, Cuba’s defence minister, for “serious human rights abuses” in connection with the protests, as well as the “Black Berets”, a unit of the interior department that was deployed to curb the unrest.

Thousands of people took to the streets on July 11 in Cuba’s biggest anti-government protests in decades, in what appeared to be spontaneous demonstrations in multiple towns and cities to protest against shortages of food and medicine and call for greater freedoms.

The government responded by sending out police in large numbers to disperse the demonstrators and restricting internet access in most of the island. Human Rights Watch later said that about 400 people had been detained.

“I unequivocally condemn the mass detentions and sham trials that are unjustly sentencing to prison those who dared to speak out in an effort to intimidate and threaten the Cuban people into silence,” Biden said in a statement on Thursday.

“The Cuban people have the same right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly as all people. The United States stands with the brave Cubans who have taken to the streets to oppose 62 years of repression under a communist regime,” the US president added.

Miguel Díaz-Canel, Cuba’s president, has repeatedly blamed exiles in the US for encouraging and organising the protests. Like Cuban leaders before him, he has pointed the finger at the American embargo for causing shortages and economic hardships, although independent economists say the country’s state-dominated economy and inefficient central planning play big roles.

Díaz-Canel’s administration had hoped that Biden would revive the Obama-era policy of detente with Havana. Despite promises from the US president on the campaign trail to alleviate some of the embargo’s humanitarian consequences, these hopes have so far been frustrated.

Cuba’s crackdown on the protesters further limits Biden’s political space for making any moves towards dialogue with Havana.

Biden said the US would “continue to sanction individuals responsible for oppression of the Cuban people” while working with “civil society organisations and the private sector to provide internet access to the Cuban people that circumvents the regime’s censorship efforts”.

He said the US was also “reviewing our remittance policy to determine how we can maximise support to the Cuban people” and was committed to “restaffing our embassy in Havana” to “provide consular services to Cubans and enhance our ability to engage with civil society”.

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