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The Biden Administration Needs To Do More For Cuban Protestors, Some Lawmakers Say

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Cuban authorities have been cracking down on protesters after a wave of anti-government rallies in mid-July. The Biden administration has joined with other democracies to speak up on behalf of the protesters, but some lawmakers say words are not enough from an administration that has vowed to put human rights at the center of its foreign policy. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The lead Cuba researcher for Human Rights Watch, Juan Pappier, is sounding the alarm about arbitrary arrests and secret trials in the wake of the mid-July protests in Cuba. He and his team have been speaking with victims and their families.

JUAN PAPPIER: We know that more than 600 people have been detained. Many have been beaten. And the government is starting to carry out summary trials.

KELEMEN: Pappier says dozens of Cubans have been convicted for, in his words, peaceful actions that shouldn't even be a crime. Now, there's a climate of fear.

PAPPIER: The streets are highly militarized. Many people are under house arrest, so they have a police officer on the entrance of their apartment or their home that says, you cannot leave. So there are many people who are afraid, but at the same time, there are lots of people who are tired.

KELEMEN: Tired of the repression and economic crisis and a global pandemic that is hitting Cuba hard. He thinks any spark can lead to more protests. The top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Cuban American Bob Menendez, calls this an historic moment.

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BOB MENENDEZ: The Cuban people, in this unprecedented hour of uncertainty and need, cannot afford anything less than our full support.

KELEMEN: The Senate unanimously approved his resolution late Tuesday expressing solidarity with the protesters. The New Jersey Democrat is proposing some ideas to help. He wants the Biden administration to figure out ways for Cuban Americans to send money to the island without enriching Cuba's military, which he says has a stranglehold on Cuba's economy. Biden has set up a working group on remittances. Another area where the U.S. can do more, Menendez says, is helping Cubans with internet access.

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MENENDEZ: The regime cut the internet to stop the Cuban people from accessing social media, a tool they were bravely using to open the eyes of the world. Who does that? Only a country that fears its people shuts down the internet.

KELEMEN: The State Department says it is working with Congress and the private sector to come up with creative ways to ensure that Cubans have access to the internet. White House officials say it is not easy, but Biden promised to make it a priority as he sat down Friday with Cuban Americans, including Senator Menendez.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: So I want the Cuban Americans to know that we all around this table, and myself included, see your pain. We hear your voices, and we hear the cries of freedom coming from the island.

KELEMEN: Biden has been imposing targeted sanctions on Cuban officials accused of taking part in the crackdown, and he's trying to coordinate an international response. That's important, says Pappier of Human Rights Watch. But he says there is one obstacle. Much of the world opposes the decades-old U.S. embargo on Cuba, and that's a distraction.

PAPPIER: The embargo is a big distraction, and it makes it harder for these governments to get on board, even in cases of, like, where the Cuban people are desperately needing their support.

KELEMEN: Twenty nations did sign a joint statement with Secretary of State Antony Blinken to support the protesters in Cuba. Canada, Spain and the European Union were not a part of that, and they have more business interests and influence with Cuban authorities.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOUNT CYANIDE'S "MAN BEATS ROBOT ANY DAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.