U.S. to impose sanctions on Cuban officials over crackdown on protests -sources By Reuters

© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A Cuban flag hangs over a street in downtown Havana, Cuba, July 15, 2021. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

By Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The Biden administration plans to announce U.S. sanctions on Thursday against several Cuban officials over their role in a crackdown on anti-government protests earlier this month, people familiar with the matter said.

The sanctions are expected to be imposed on security force officials accused of human rights abuses against activists who took part in the biggest protests of their kind in decades in the Communist-ruled island, the two sources told Reuters.

It will mark the first concrete steps by President Joe Biden’s administration to apply pressure on the Cuban government as Washington faces calls from U.S. lawmakers and the Cuban-American community to show greater support for the protesters.

The speed with which the administration has crafted new sanctions further signals Biden is highly unlikely to soften the U.S. approach to Cuba any time soon after his predecessor, Donald Trump, rolled back a historic Obama-era détente with Havana.

Thousands of Cubans staged protests a week ago to demonstrate against an economic crisis that has brought shortages of basic goods and power outages. They were also protesting the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and curbs on civil liberties. Hundreds of activists were detained.

Biden had promised during the 2020 campaign to reverse some of Trump’s Cuba policies, but Thursday’s announcement suggests little appetite for a return to rapprochement.

At the same time, the administration is still seeking ways to ease the humanitarian plight of the Cuban people.

The White House said on Tuesday that Biden would form a working group to examine remittances to Cuba in the wake of the protests on the island. The aim is to determine how Cuban-Americans can send money to families on the island while keeping the funds out of the hands of the Cuban government.

Trump had imposed tight restrictions on the flow of remittances, which are believed to have previously amounted to several billions of dollars annually.

The United States is also working with the private sector and Congress to look for ways to make the internet more accessible to the people of Cuba, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Tuesday.

Price called on the Cuban government to restore full internet and telecommunications to Cubans that were curtailed amid the wave of protests.

The Cuban government has blamed the protests mostly on U.S.-financed “counter-revolutionaries” exploiting economic hardship caused by U.S. sanctions.

The sanctions are expected to be imposed under the Global Magnitsky Act, used to punish human rights violators with U.S. asset freezes and bans on travel to the United States, one of the sources said. But U.S. officials have acknowledged that targeted Cuban individuals are unlikely to have U.S. financial dealings.

NEW SENSE OF URGENCY

The unrest appears to have injected a new sense of urgency into Biden’s broad Cuba policy review, which began shortly after he took office in January. Until now, Cuba had not been treated as a top agenda item while the administration dealt with the economic recovery and coronavirus pandemic at home and challenges such as China, Russia and Iran abroad.

Cuba, a State Department official told Reuters, is now a “top priority.”

Biden, a Democrat, had vowed during the campaign to ease some of the sanctions on Cuba tightened by Trump, a Republican.

But analysts say conciliatory moves are unlikely in the near term. Complicating matters was Biden’s poorer-than-expected showing with voters in south Florida’s anti-communist Cuban-American community, which backed Trump’s tough policies toward Havana and Caracas and helped him win the battleground state.

Many analysts say Biden may have to tread carefully on Cuba policy ahead of the 2022 congressional elections.




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