July 22 (UPI) -- The United States imposed new sanctions on Cuban officials accused of "serious human rights abuse and corruption" amid ongoing protests calling for economic reform and COVID-19 relief, the Treasury Department announced Thursday.
The sanctions target Cuba's Interior Ministry's Special National Brigade and Alvaro Lopez Miera, head of Cuba's Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces. The financial penalties come under the Global Magnitsky Act, which seek to fight human rights abuses.
The Treasury Department said Lopez Miera and the MINFAR "have attacked protesters and arrested or disappeared over 100 protesters in an attempt to suppress those protests."
The anti-government protests, which began earlier in the month, are the largest seen in decades in the communist country, as people took to the streets in the capital of Havana and other locations as Cuba continued to suffer from a deepening economic crisis and the pandemic.
"The Cuban people are protesting for the fundamental and universal rights they deserve from their government," Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said. "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."
President Joe Biden released a statement Thursday saying the Cuban people have the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, just as Americans do.
"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," he said.
The White House explained the sanctions are part of a bigger initiative in support of the Cuban people, including through working with the private sector to develop ways to ensure Internet access on the island nation as well as reviewing ways to aid families in the United States to send remittances to their Cuban relatives.
"The Administration's guiding principle is ensuring that funds, to the greatest extent possible, get to the Cuban people without a portion of the proceeds being siphoned off by the regime," the White House said in a statement. "The President remains concerned the remittances do not reach their intended recipients, including some of the most vulnerable populations on the island, and instead are being used as a stopgap to treat their government's failures."
The administration, it said, is also working re-staff the U.S. Embassy in the capital Havana.
Earlier this month, Biden called on Cuban leaders to listen to protesters' grievances. Havana, in turn, has blamed the United States for acting as foreign agitators.
"This I do not expect will be the sum total of actions," he said. "We're going to continue to review what more we can do not only to support the Cuban people, but also, again, importantly to hold to account those who would be so brazen in their efforts and attempts to violate the human rights of the Cuban people."