July 30, 2021

By Jeff Mason and Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Joe Biden plans to meet Cuban-American leaders on Friday at the White House to discuss protests against the communist government in Havana, sanctions on Cuban leaders and his attempt to provide internet access to the island.

The late afternoon meeting comes as the politically important community calls for more support for the biggest populist outpouring against the Havana government in decades. Biden has promised additional sanctions against Cuban leaders, a move backed by many Cuban Americans.

The protests erupted https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/street-protests-break-out-cuba-2021-07-11 this month amid Cuba’s worst economic crisis since the fall of its old Soviet Union ally and a record surge in coronavirus infections. Thousands have taken to the streets, angry over shortages of basic goods, curbs on civil liberties and the authorities’ handling of the pandemic.

Florida’s 1.5 million Cuban Americans voted heavily for Republican Donald Trump in the 2020 election, and earning their support is crucial for Biden’s Democratic party to clinch the swing state.

Last week, the U.S. Treasury announced sanctions on Cuba’s defense minister and an interior ministry special forces unit over allegations of human rights abuses in the crackdown on anti-government protests this month.

Biden said at the time that more sanctions would be coming against “individuals responsible for oppression of the Cuban people.”

Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill say more is needed.

U.S. Representative Kathy Castor, a Florida Democrat, wrote a letter to Biden earlier this week urging further sanctions “against additional members the communist regime as we rally other nations to press for democracy and human rights in Cuba.”

Participants in Friday’s meeting were to include: L. Felice Gorordo, CEO, eMerge Americas, & co-founder, Roots of Hope; Yotuel Romero, lead singer of Cuban hip hop group Orishas and author of “Patria y Vida” a song that has become the anthem for the protesters; as well as Ana Sofia Pelaez, founder of the Miami Freedom Project; and former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz.

Biden and his team have been trying to arrange internet access for Cubans, and considering easing restrictions on payments Americans can send to their families in Cuba, while preventing the Cuban government from benefiting.

“I think if Biden has a successful Cuban policy that is able to put the regime on the defensive and provide concrete support to Cubans, that will benefit him with voters in Florida,” said John Suarez, a human rights activist and executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba. “If the regime collapses on his watch, that could be a game changer.”

The Democratic National Committee launched a digital ad campaign aimed at Cuban-American voters in south Florida earlier this week to defend Biden against criticism that he had not reacted swiftly enough after the protests.

“The DNC is committed to using our resources to speak directly to the Cuban community in South Florida to make sure they know that President Biden and Democrats have their back,” said DNC Chairman Jaime Harrison.

(Reporting By Steve Holland; Editing by Heather Timmons and Alistair Bell)