Cuba Slams New 'Baseless, Slanderous Sanctions,' Biden Says 'This Is Just the Beginning'

Cuba has slammed a new round of sanctions issued by President Joe Biden in response to a crackdown on protesters on the Communist-led island, which is already the subject of a decades-long U.S. trade embargo.

But Biden has warned that these new sanctions are "just the beginning," as his administration targeted Havana in the wake of rare anti-government demonstrations earlier this month and a subsequent crackdown by Cuban officials accusing Washington of stirring unrest.

Biden released a statement Thursday in which he said he "unequivocally" condemned "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."

He issued a strong message of support for the demonstrators.

"The Cuban people have the same right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly as all people," Biden said. "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 president then announced new measures targeting the Cuban government.

He said his administration "is imposing new sanctions targeting elements of the Cuban regime responsible for this crackdown—the head of the Cuban military and the division of the Cuban Ministry of the Interior driving the crackdown—to hold them accountable for their actions."

"This is just the beginning," he warned. "The United States will continue to sanction individuals responsible for oppression of the Cuban people."

The statement received a prompt response from Havana, where Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez castigated yet another form of U.S. economic pressure against the nation.

In a tweet referred to Newsweek by the Cuban embassy in Washington, Rodríguez expressed his "rejection of the baseless and slanderous sanctions."

The top Cuban diplomat suggested that Biden apply the Magnitzky Act, which the U.S. uses to freeze the assets of accused human rights abusers, "to himself for acts of everyday repression and police brutality that cost 1,021 lives in 2020."

Cuba, protest, at, White, House
People hold flags during a protest showing support for Cubans demonstrating against their government in front of the White House in Washington, D.C. on July 18. ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images

While the mass protests accusing Cuban officials of restricting freedoms and failing to adequately address humanitarian needs exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic have largely subsided in Havana and other parts of the country, nationwide rallies continue across the U.S. The stateside demonstrations have been particularly pronounced in Florida, where many members of a large, influential Cuban diaspora community have regularly criticized the Communist leadership in Cuba.

The outcry has created added domestic pressure for Biden to take further action against Cold War-era foe, with whom he previously supported rapprochement as pursued while he was vice president under former President Barack Obama. Eased restrictions were reinstated by his successor, former President Donald Trump, and while Biden criticized this approach on the campaign trail, he has kept these measures in place since coming to office in January and appears posed to implement new sanctions.

The White House released a fact sheet Thursday listing a number of initiatives the administration was pursuing with respect to Cuba.

These included the rollout of the latest sanctions, efforts to engage the region and international community, a proposal to establish external internet access to bypass the Cuban government's control, discussions held with Cuban-American community leaders, a review of the remittances policy toward Cuba and a plan to restaff the U.S. embassy in Havana.

Nearly all of these avenues have been met with criticism in Havana. Cuban officials have particularly hit out recently at the U.S. attempt to rally regional and international partners, nearly all of whom have opposed the long-running U.S. embargo on the island. A United Nations General Assembly vote last month resulted in an overwhelming 184-2 condemning the trade restrictions, with only Israel joining the U.S. in opposing the resolution and Brazil, Colombia and Ukraine abstaining.

But Rodríguez claimed to have uncovered a new attempt to garner support among the 35-member Organization of American States on Wednesday when he shared on Twitter what he claimed to be a draft joint statement condemning Cuba.

He accused the State Department of "exercising brutal pressures on the governments of a group of OAS States, forcing them to support this statement or issue a similar one."

Reached for comment, a State Department spokesperson did not speak directly to the authenticity of the document, but confirmed to Newsweek that the Biden administration is "exploring further options at the United Nations and the OAS to support the Cuban people and call for respect for human rights and universal freedom."

"As President Biden directed, we have intensified diplomatic engagement with our regional and international partners to support the aspirations of the Cuban people," the spokesperson said. "It is important for the international community to speak up in support of the Cuban people, to condemn the Cuban government's crackdown on peaceful protestors, and to call on the Cuban government to respect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of Cuban people."

On Thursday, Rodríguez further laid into the issue, denouncing what he said was the State Department "exercising offensive and humiliating pressures on European countries, particularly 6 from Eastern Europe, and 8 from Latin America; to force them to support a declaration condemning #Cuba."

He alleged that right-wing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro "is shamelessly offering his support."

Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel also weighed in, asserting that "the empire persists in blatant aggression and interference relying on slander, lies and brutal pressure on governments," he tweeted. "#Cuba is firm."

The Organization of American States did not immediately respond to Newsweek's request for comment.