WASHINGTON — The Biden administration issued new sanctions on Thursday to punish Cuba’s defense minister and an elite brigade of government security forces for human rights violations against protesters earlier this month.
In the days since demonstrations erupted across Cuba on July 11, the Biden administration has been consulting with officials across Washington and experts on how broadly it should impose economic penalties against authorities accused of ordering or carrying out a heavy-handed response.
The Biden administration concluded that Álvaro López Miera, the head of the Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, “has played an integral role in the repression of ongoing protests in Cuba,” the Treasury Department said in a statement.
Members of the special forces unit Boinas Negras, or Black Berets, which was previously sanctioned during the final days of the Trump administration, will also be penalized for a wave of arrests larger than any other crackdown in years, if not decades.
Activists said at least 150 protesters were arrested or disappeared during the July 11 demonstrations, and internet service was cut for much of the island to stifle the anti-government sentiment.
The human rights sanctions, issued as part of the Global Magnitsky Act, allow the American government to freeze the property or other assets in the United States that belong to the people targeted by the economic penalties.
“The Cuban people have the same right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly as all people,” President Biden said in a statement.
He added: “This is just the beginning — the United States will continue to sanction individuals responsible for oppression of the Cuban people.”
Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, described the sanctions as among a range of responses Mr. Biden will deploy to help Cubans who are grappling with government oppression and a growing humanitarian crisis. She said that “addressing this moment was a priority for the administration.”
As vice president during the Obama administration, Mr. Biden oversaw a policy that restored full diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time in more than a half-century. But he has taken a tougher stance as president, a position that generally has been greeted warmly by members of Congress — including some Democrats who had been in the awkward position of siding with President Donald J. Trump’s policy of containing Cuba’s communist government.
Cubans have grown increasingly frustrated with their government amid an economic crisis that has included food scarcity, power cuts, skyrocketing inflation and a growing number of Covid-19 deaths. The Cuban government, for its part, has blamed the United States for a trade embargo and, last week, accused American officials of stirring the unrest.
“Our message could not be clearer: The U.S. stands with the people of Cuba and there will be consequences for those with blood on their hands,” Senator Bob Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said on Twitter. “@POTUS is absolutely right in holding the Cuban regime accountable as it violently tries to squash Cubans’ hopes & dreams.”
The State Department also is considering whether to allow people in the United States to send money to relatives and friends in Cuba though a remittance process that, in past cases, has been exploited by government officials who have seized a cut of the funds. The department’s spokesman, Ned Price, said earlier this week that the Biden administration was examining how to get the money “directly in the hands of the Cuban people.”
Additionally, Mr. Price said, the department may increase the number of American diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, where the number of staff was set at the bare minimum during the Trump administration. It is not clear when, or if, the Biden administration will move forward on either front.