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Biden orders review of possible first steps toward easing U.S. policy on Cuba

Biden expresses support for Cuban protesters
Biden expresses support for Cuban protesters 03:17

Washington — President Joe Biden on Monday ordered the State Department to create 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.

He also ordered the department to start a working group to review of the feasibility of increasing the staff of the U.S. Embassy in Havana. The White House hopes a staffing boost could help it better facilitate civil society engagement following one of the communist island's biggest antigovernment demonstrations in recent memory.

The actions were detailed by a senior administration official who spoke to CBS News on condition of anonymity because the Biden administration hadn't yet publicly announced the effort. They were first reported by the Miami Herald.

"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," the official said in a statement to CBS News that was also first in the Herald.

It comes a little more than a week after thousands of Cubans took to the streets of Havana and other cities across the island to protest food shortages and high prices during the coronavirus crisis. It's a level of frustration not seen in Cuba in more than 60 years.

The official also confirmed to CBS news that the administration is considering initiatives to make help make the internet more accessible  to the Cuban people.

"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 Biden-Harris administration has and will continue to stand with the Cuban people," the official said in a statement to CBS News also made to the Herald.

The Cuban regime moved to quickly cut off internet access to stop images of the protests from being broadcast to the world. Republican lawmakers, including Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, have been urging Mr. Biden to give dissidents free satellite internet access to help them subvert the Cuban government's effort to stop activists from getting their messages on social media.

The administration will also look to work with international organizations to increase humanitarian assistance, while the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control will explore sanctioning Cuban officials who committed human rights violations against peaceful protesters in Cuba, the official told The Associated Press.

Biden senior adviser Cedric Richmond and Juan Gonzalez, a senior National Security Council official, met on Monday with Cuban American leaders to hear their policy recommendations and concerns in the aftermath of the demonstrations, according to the White House.

CBS Miami reports that Gloria and Emilio Estefan were among those taking part.

Mr. Biden said as a presidential candidate that he would revert to Obama-era policies that loosened decades of embargo restrictions on Havana, and the political right in the U.S. has accused him of not being supportive enough of Cuban dissidents. Thus far, the Biden administration has said it's reviewing its Cuba policy and has done little to move away from Mr. Trump's posture toward the communist regime.

The Herald points out that pressure for the president to change course has been ramping up in Miami, home to the largest Cuban American community. Hundreds have held rallies in Miami, Washington , D.C. and other cities, urging Mr. Biden to show support for the protesters in Cuba.

Cuba Protests Miami
Demonstrators walk down Eighth Street in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami on July 18, 2021. Marta Lavandier / AP

He's also been under congressional pressure to take action, last week called Cuba a "failed state" that was "repressing their citizens." But he also suggested that taking effective action was complicated.

"There are a number of things that we would consider doing to help the people of Cuba, but it would require a different circumstance or a guarantee that they would not be taken advantage of by the government," Biden said. "For example, the ability to send remittances back to Cuba. We would not do that now because the fact is it's highly likely the regime would confiscate those remittances or big chunks of it."

A dramatic drawdown of embassy personnel from Cuba began in 2017, unrelated to the Trump administration's antipathy toward President Barack Obama's rapprochement with the island.

Instead, the removal of staffers from the U.S. Embassy in Havana began in the spring and summer of that year in response to unexplained brain injuries suffered by American diplomats, spies and other government employees posted to the island.

The Trump administration also moved to reverse many of the Obama administration's initiatives, reimposing restrictions that had barred direct commercial flights by U.S. carriers to multiple Cuban airports and port calls by U.S. registered cruise ships.

President Donald Trump also sharply curtailed remittances that Cuban Americans were allowed to send to relatives on the island, barred financial and commercial transactions with most Cuban companies affiliated with the government or military and, in his final days in office,  redesignated Cuba a "state sponsor of terrorism," in part for its support of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

Some of the more liberal members of the Democratic Party, most notably Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, have criticized the Cuban government but also called on Mr. Biden to lift the embargo and argued that the embargo policy is contributing to Cuban suffering.

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