U.S. sanctions Cuban defense minister, special forces over crackdown on protests

A special forces vehicle passes by a vintage car in downtown Havana, Cuba, July 13, 2021.

Alexandre Meneghini | Reuters

WASHINGTON – The United States imposed sanctions on Cuba’s defense minister and the communist nation’s special forces brigade for the repression of peaceful protests that broke out on the island last week.

The sanctions mark the first steps by the Biden administration to apply pressure on the Cuban government as Washington faces calls to show greater support for the protesters.

“Cuba’s Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, which is led by, Alvaro Lopez Miera, has played an integral role in the repression of ongoing protests in Cuba, in which Cuban citizens are calling for an end to the 62-year old regime and deteriorating living conditions across the island, as well as demanding access to basic goods and services and medical attention,” the Treasury Department wrote in a statement announcing the sanctions.

Last week, thousands of protestors filled the streets over frustrations with a crippled economy hit by food and power shortages. The rare protests, the largest the communist country has seen since the 1990s, come as the government struggles to contain the coronavirus pandemic, pushing the island’s fragile health-care system to the brink.

On the heels of the protests, President Diaz-Canel Bermudez said his regime was “prepared to do anything” to quell the protests, according to a report from The Washington Post. “We will be battling in the streets,” he said, adding that the United States is in part to blame for the widespread discontent in Cuba.

A day later, he appeared alongside members of his government and blamed U.S. trade sanctions for hampering Cuba’s growth.

Reacting to the Cuban president’s comments, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters last week that the United States was not to blame for the laundry list of issues plaguing Havana.

Blinken said that Cubans were “tired of the mismanagement of the Cuban economy, tired of the lack of adequate food and, of course, an adequate response to the Covid-19 pandemic.”

“That is what we are hearing and seeing in Cuba, and that is a reflection of the Cuban people, not of the United States or any other outside actor,” Blinken said.

President Joe Biden told reporters at the White House that the U.S. stands “firmly with the people of Cuba as they assert their universal rights.”

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