Bay Area activists take fight for Cuba to Washington as Biden imposes new sanctions

Alian Collazo came to Florida on a raft from Cuba at the age of eight. On Monday, he will voyage from Largo to Washington to exercise a right family still in Cuba don't have: The right to demonstrate. He will protest on behalf of the Cuban people.

"They have been yelling 'liberated' which means freedom," he said. "'Abajo la dictatura.' Down with the dictatorship."

On Thursday, the Biden administration announced new sanctions Thursday against a Cuban official and a government special brigade that it says was involved in human rights abuses during a government crackdown on protests on the island earlier this month.

Collazo calls the administration's efforts to partner with private companies to expand internet access to the island crucial.

"We need to find a way to keep the voices of the Cuban people and what they are doing in Cuba alive," said Collazo. "The only way to do that is figure out a way to go around the Cuban government's cyber wall."

President Biden's move is the latest in a 60-year battle with the Cuban government. Some progressives want him to scrap the entire embargo, while Cuba hawks like Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott welcomed Thursday's moves. 

"The people of Cuba, especially now that they have access to the internet, they realize, they see how cousins and family are living outside of Cuba," said Rubio.

Vic DiMaio, a Cuban American Democratic organizer in Hillsborough County, said, "Sanctioning three or four people, is that going to solve the problems of the people in Cuba who are hungry, who are having a rough time right now? I don't know."

That's why organizers like Collazo say Biden's moves are merely a beginning.

"This is something that should be uniting everyone," said Collazo.

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The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control had been tasked with exploring sanctioning Cuban officials who committed human rights violations against peaceful protesters in Cuba.

Biden has also called for the State Department to launch a working group to review U.S. remittance policy to ensure that money that Cuban Americans send home makes it directly into the hands of their families without the regime taking a cut. Biden said there will be a review of the viability of increasing staff at the U.S. Embassy in Havana. The White House is hopeful that a boost in staffing could help it better facilitate civil society engagement following one of Cuba's biggest anti-government demonstrations in recent memory.

"I unequivocally condemn 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," President Joe Biden said in a statement. "The Cuban people have the same right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly as all people."

Those who will face the latest sanctions include Alvaro Lopez Miera, a Cuban military and political leader, and the Brigada Especial Nacional del Ministerio del Interior, or Interior Ministry Special Brigade.

The Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control said in a statement that Lopez Miera "has played an integral role in the repression of ongoing protests in Cuba." Cuba’s Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, which is led by Lopez Miera, and other Cuban government security services have attacked protesters and arrested or disappeared over 100 protesters in an attempt to suppress these protests, according to Treasury.

As protests broke out in the county, the regime led by Miguel Diaz-Canel moved quickly, and violently, to stop them. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the actions by Cuban authorities, and violent mobs it mobilized, "lay bare the regime’s fear of its own people and unwillingness to meet their basic needs and aspirations."

The Interior Ministry Special Brigade was already sanctioned in January by the Trump administration, which targeted the entire ministry and Interior Minister Lazaro Alberto Alvarez Casas under the Global Magnitsky Act.

"The Cuban people are protesting for the fundamental and universal rights they deserve from their government," said Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. "Treasury will continue to enforce its Cuba-related sanctions, including those imposed today, to support the people of Cuba in their quest for democracy and relief from the Cuban regime."

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Earlier this week, the White House announced that Biden had ordered his administration to take several steps to raise pressure on the communist regime after thousands of Cubans took to the streets of Havana and other cities across the island earlier this month to protest food shortages and high prices during the coronavirus crisis.

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez immediately took to Twitter to call the sanctions "baseless and slanderous" and suggested that Biden apply the sanctions on himself "for acts of everyday repression and police brutality" in the U.S.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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