Washington has slapped new sanctions on Cuba’s national police force and its two top officials, claiming they led a crackdown on recent protests, with President Biden referencing further measures at a meeting with Cuban-Americans.

Announced by the Treasury Department on Friday, the new sanctions targeted Cuba’s National Revolutionary Police, as well as its director Oscar Callejas and his deputy Eddy Sierra, saying they had worked to “suppress [the] peaceful, pro-democratic protests in Cuba” that erupted earlier this month. 

Biden met with leaders of Cuban diaspora groups at the White House soon after the penalties were unveiled, pledging, “There will be more, unless there’s some drastic change in Cuba, which I don’t anticipate.”

We hear the cries of freedom coming from the island. The United States is taking concerted action to bolster the cause of the Cuban people.

Though largely symbolic, the sanctions follow another round of penalties imposed last week on Cuban Defense Minister Alvaro Lopez Miera and a special forces brigade, who were accused of “repression” and rights abuses linked to the protests. 

The anti-government rallies erupted on July 11, with crowds taking to the streets to protest the state’s response to the pandemic and ongoing shortages of goods and medicine, and some calling for an end to the over 60 years of communist rule. The demonstrations – which eventually spread to more than 40 towns, including the capital, Havana – were a rarity, with such unrest not seen on the island in decades.

Cuban officials have accused Washington of inciting the protests, while President Miguel Díaz-Canel has claimed the US and its allies are leading a campaign of “media terrorism” to demonize his country. Havana has also pointed to a decades-long US blockade barring most trade with the island, saying it had fueled the current crisis. Estimates from the United Nations suggest the embargo has cost Cuba some $130 billion since it was imposed in 1962, with the international body repeatedly calling on Washington to lift the blockade, in resolutions going back to the 1990s.

READ MORE: ‘Beginning’ of the end? Biden warns Cuba of looming torrent of sanctions

Biden insisted on Friday that the rallies were “a historic demonstration of the will of the people of Cuba,” however, adding that the state had “responded with violence and repression, mass detentions, sham trials, and people disappearing.”

In addition to threatening further sanctions, Biden said his administration was “pursuing every option available” to help Cubans obtain reliable internet access and “bypass the censorship.” Ahead of the White House meeting, a senior administration official said web access “should be treated as a human right,” and the US government was now working with private internet providers to deliver it.

The president also vowed to expand assistance to “political prisoners and dissidents” on the island, and noted that the US State Department would soon offer recommendations for how to “maximize the flow of remittances to the Cuban people without the Cuban military taking their cut,” referring to payments sent to Cubans from US-based friends and relatives.

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