President Joe Biden imposed new penalties against a top Cuban military commander and a unit of the government’s draconian state security apparatus on Thursday, accusing them of being behind the savage crackdown on historic rallies throughout the island earlier this month.
Biden’s decision is a departure from his campaign promises, when he promised to restore the Obama-era thaw in US-Cuban relations. According to administration officials and Cuba experts, Biden’s strategy and tone on Cuba has changed as a result of the enormous protests there.
In a statement released Thursday, Biden stated, “This is just the beginning — the United States will continue to sanction individuals responsible for the persecution of the Cuban people.”
The White House used a federal human rights law to censure Alvaro Lopez Miera, Cuba’s Revolutionary Armed Forces minister, and a special brigade in the government’s intelligence ministry on Thursday.
Critics of Cuba’s communist government praised the announcement, though it’s unclear how severe the punishments will be. Miera is unlikely to have any assets in the United States that could be frozen as a result of Thursday’s action. The Trump administration has already placed Cuba’s Interior Ministry on a no-fly list.
The designations “reflect the crucial role that Cuba’s Ministry of the Interior plays in the state’s violent repression of the Cuban people,” according to Ryan C. Berg, a senior scholar in the Americas programme at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
However, he claims that they will have little practical impact.
“The sanctions infrastructure that has been established around Cuba renders these designations completely obsolete,” he explained. “The penalties are largely symbolic, designed to give the impression that the Biden administration is reacting quickly to the Cuban protests while, in reality, they are doing very little.”
Senator Bob Menendez, the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the Biden administration’s decision sent a clear message to Cuba’s regime. “The United States stands with the Cuban people, and those who have blood on their hands will face consequences,” the New Jersey Democrat stated on Twitter.
The penalties, as well as Biden’s threat of additional steps, were praised by Fernand Amandi, a political consultant and Cuban-American Democrat residing in Florida.
These will be well-received, not just by Cuban exiles around the world, but also by the worldwide community, which has witnessed the abuses inflicted on the Cuban people who were merely asking for independence and liberty,” Amandi said.
“These actions have real fangs, and they change the game in terms of how to punish the regime in the future,” he said. “While simultaneously emboldening and empowering the demonstrators on the island,” Amandi said, they will apply pressure on the Cuban regime.
Ned Price, a spokesman for the State Department, said he couldn’t say whether any of the targets had assets in the United States.
When asked about the penalties’ practical impact, Price acknowledged they had “an essential messaging element.” At a press conference on Thursday, he said, “It’s a significant indication of our willingness to hold individuals responsible for this (crackdown) accountable.”
Other changes to US Cuba policy are being considered, he said, such as relaxing restrictions on remittances that Cuban Americans can send to their families. Price stated that the Biden administration will only do so if it can guarantee that none of the funds will end up in the hands of the Cuban government.
Biden promised throughout the campaign to overturn the Trump administration’s tough stance on Cuba. As vice president, Biden championed the Obama administration’s historic breakthrough in US-Cuban relations, promising to restore the Obama administration’s softer approach by relaxing sanctions, travel restrictions, and remittance limits.