The Biden administration on Monday leveled fresh sanctions against Havana and aligned with 20 other democracies to collectively condemn the Cuban regime’s recent crackdown on protesters, but critics and anti-communism activists say the U.S. moves are not enough.
President Biden, they say, is missing a historic chance to back a major pro-freedom movement on the communist-controlled island, and that a few more sanctions on a country facing a 60-year U.S. embargo will not make a difference.
“Where is Joe Biden? Cuba needs him. Freedom needs him and we expect him to lead,” Rep. Mike Waltz, Florida Republican, told a crowd of demonstrators who gathered near the White House on Monday to call for an end to communist rule in Cuba.
The rally, featuring fiery remarks from several Cuban American activists, came as the administration sought to draw fresh attention to the nearly unprecedented protests that broke out in several Cuban cities in early July. Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a statement Monday saying the U.S. “support[s] the Cuban people’s desire for freedom and to determine their own future.”
Foreign ministers from 20 other nations — though just five in Latin America — joined the U.S. in a separate collective statement condemning Havana’s mass arrest and detention of Cubans who partook in the July 11 uprising.
“We call on the Cuban government to respect the legally guaranteed rights and freedoms of the Cuban people without fear of arrest and detention,” the joint statement said. “We urge the Cuban government to release those detained for exercising their rights to peaceful protest. We call for press freedom and for the full restoration of Internet access, which allows economies and societies to thrive.”
The joint statement was signed by Mr. Blinken and foreign ministers from Austria, Brazil, Colombia, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Ecuador, Estonia, Guatemala, Greece, Honduras, Israel, Latvia, Lithuania, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Poland, South Korea and Ukraine.
The July 11 demonstrations in Cuba sparked global media attention, with protesters in some cities chanting “Libertad,” or “Freedom,” and demanding President Miguel Diaz-Canel to step down in the face of deteriorating economic conditions amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The uprising was the biggest against the Cuban regime in nearly two decades. But after the regime’s swift arrest and detention of hundreds of demonstrators, there has yet to be a second wave of protests. Mr. Diaz-Canel, meanwhile, has claimed U.S. sanctions and the trade embargo in place against Havana for decades are to blame for economic woes that sparked the protests.
Monday’s joint statement by the U.S. and other democracies came as the Organization of American States — the main multinational institution in the Western Hemisphere — remained silent on the Cuba developments, with some members even appearing to stand up for the Cuban regime.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said Monday that he thinks Mr. Biden must make a decision about the decades-old U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba. “It is not conceivable that in these times they want to punish an independent country with a blockade,” Mr. Lopez Obrador said, according to Reuters.
He noted the entire U.N. General Assembly, with the exception of Israel and the United States, voted for a 29th consecutive year last month in favor of a resolution demanding the end of the embargo.
Some in Washington argue the White House needs to move quickly to offer tangible assistance to Cuban protesters calling for regime change. The administration says it is looking for ways to do that without enriching the communist authorities, or spurring false hopes and expectations among the protesters.
The administration last week imposed fresh sanctions on Cuba‘s defense minister and the Cuban military’s special forces brigade for their role in the recent crackdown on protesters.
Others say the administration is toeing a delicate line. Andres Oppenheimer, the syndicated foreign affairs columnist with the Miami Herald who was born in Argentina, argued in a column last week that Mr. Biden “deserves credit for his reaction to the Cuban regime’s crackdown.”
“He has resisted the calls by the Democratic Party’s far left and the Black Lives Matter Foundation to lift U.S. sanctions. That would amount to rewarding repression,” Mr. Oppenheimer wrote. Mr. Biden would do well to give Cuba‘s internal opposition more high-profile recognition and turn it into a key player in any dealings with the regime, he argued.
It’s a more nuanced approach than the approach favored by Cuban American protesters.
As first lady Jill Biden returned Monday to the White House from the Tokyo Olympics, her motorcade passed a demonstrator on the National Mall who said, “No negotiation with the Cuban regime.”
Congressional Republicans are expected to highlight the Cuba issue during a Washington demonstration on Tuesday that serves as counterprogramming to the first hearing of the committee probing the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.