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Biden orders review of Havana embassy staff, remittances after Cuba protests

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President Joe Biden took steps on Monday to respond to a historic wave of protests in Cuba, ordering the State Department to review an increase in staff at the U.S. Embassy in Havana and forming a working group that will consider remittances for Cuban families.

The administration’s new policy moves mark a step forward for a White House that has been reviewing its posture toward Cuba for over six months.

But the administration felt a sudden sense of urgency to act when an islandwide anti-government uprising erupted last week, leaving many injured and at least one confirmed dead.

Hundreds of protesters are still under detention, after a violent crackdown ordered by Cuban authorities.

“At President Biden’s direction, the United States is actively pursuing measures that will both support the Cuban people and hold the Cuban regime accountable,” a senior administration official told McClatchy and the Miami Herald.

“The administration will form a Remittance Working Group to identify the most effective way to get remittances directly into the hands of the Cuban people,” the official said, adding that the State Department “will review planning to augment staffing of U.S. Embassy Havana to facilitate diplomatic, consular, and civil society engagement, and an appropriate security posture.”

At a pro-government rally on Saturday, Cuban leader Miguel Díaz-Canel repeated accusations that the protests were orchestrated and financed by the U.S. White House officials have dismissed those claims.

Biden had promised to reverse some of Trump’s policies regarding remittances and travel, citing humanitarian concerns.

During the past two years, the Trump administration tightened restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba, reversing the engagement policies from the Obama era in an attempt to cut the money flowing to the Cuban military. Trump officials also cited Cuba´s support of the Nicolás Maduro regime in Venezuela as another reason for the “maximum pressure campaign” against the communist government.

Sanctions on Fincimex — a Cuban financial entity handling remittances — because of its links with the Cuban military caused Western Union to suspend its services in Cuba in early 2020, leaving many Cuban Americans without a legal way to send remittances to their loved ones on the island. Remittances are the second-largest source of revenue for the country and a lifeline for many families.

The Trump administration also restricted commercial flights to most Cuban destinations and banned cruise trips to Cuba in June 2019. Days before leaving office, Trump’s State Department placed Cuba back on the list of countries that sponsor terrorism.

About 100,000 Cubans wanting to emigrate to the United States are also in legal limbo, as the suspension of consular services at the U.S. Embassy in Havana has caused an enormous backlog. The U.S. government withdrew most of its staff in 2017 after numerous diplomats fell ill from a mysterious ailment whose cause is still unknown but some suspect was an attack from a foreign adversary.

Pressure in Miami, the home of the largest Cuban American community, has been mounting. Hundreds of Cuban Americans have been rallying all week in Miami, Washington and other cities, asking President Biden to show support for the protesters.

Cuban American members of Congress asked the administration to look for ways to provide free internet access to Cubans on the island, after the government cut the services to stop the circulation of images of the protests and the violent police response.

The official said that Biden is also working with Congress and the private sector to look for “viable options” that would make the internet more accessible to Cubans.

The Treasury Department will also consider new sanctions designations against Cuban officials that have been responsible for repression throughout the protests, the official said, and the Biden administration “will intensify diplomatic engagement with regional and international partners” to support democracy in Cuba.

“On July 11, the world watched as tens of thousands of Cuban citizens marched through Havana and cities across Cuba bravely asserting their fundamental and universal rights and demanding freedom and relief from the oppression of Cuba’s authoritarian regime,” the official said. “The Biden-Harris administration has and will continue to stand with the Cuban people.”

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