The Biden administration on Thursday imposed sanctions against Cuba’s defense minister and a special forces unit of the Interior Ministry it said was directly involved in human rights abuses during a government crackdown on widespread protests on the island this month.

President Biden said in a statement that the measures were “just the beginning” of efforts to sanction “individuals responsible for the oppression of the Cuban people.”

The measures were unveiled as Biden faces increasing pressure from Congress, activist groups and Cuban Americans to take decisive action in support of protesters on the island.

The administration had been slowly exploring new policies toward Cuba that would reverse many of the actions taken by President Donald Trump to restrict travel, trade and other forms of outreach. The Obama administration had expanded contacts when it reestablished diplomatic relations with Havana in 2015.

But the ongoing upheaval in Cuba, including simultaneous, unprecedented demonstrations in a number of cities and towns that resulted in hundreds of arrests, attacks against anti-government protesters and attempts to shut down the Internet communications that enabled demonstrations to be organized, have set the Biden administration on a new timetable and pushed it away from anything that could be seen as a concession to the communist government.

In a tweeted response minutes after the measures were announced in Washington, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez called the sanctions against Defense Minister Álvaro López Miera and the Interior force “baseless and slanderous.”

The United States, he said, should apply its sanctions laws to itself for the “everyday acts of repression and police brutality that cost 1,021 lives in 2020.”

The sanctions were applied under the Global Magnitsky Act, which was passed in Congress in 2012 to target what the Treasury Department called “perpetrators of serious human rights abuse and corruption around the world.”

The National Special Brigade, also known as the Black Berets, was previously sanctioned during Trump’s last week in office on allegations that it was engaging in serious human rights abuses.

As part of a coordinated release of administration statements, Secretary of State Antony Blinken recounted that “starting on July 11, tens of thousands of Cubans . . . took to the streets to peacefully demand respect for their fundamental freedoms and a better future.”

“In response,” Blinken said, “the Cuban regime violently repressed the protests, arresting hundreds of demonstrators simply for exercising their human rights of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.”

Biden’s unanticipated loss of Florida’s Cuban American vote to Trump last year, and demands from senior Cuban American lawmakers of both parties, appear to have focused his attention on Cuba and created the impetus for action in response to the government’s crackdown.

“As we hold the Cuban regime accountable,” he said in Thursday’s statement, “our support for the Cuban people is unwavering and we are making sure Cuban Americans are a vital partner in our efforts to provide relief to suffering people on the Island.”

To underscore the point, the Democratic National Committee’s “War Room” issued a statement by email headlined “Biden Takes Historic Steps to Protect Cuban People and Hold Cuban Officials Accountable for Human Rights Violations.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), a Cuban American who has been a vocal advocate of a tougher policy, said the sanctions were a clear message. “The United States stands with the people of Cuba and there will be consequences for those with blood on their hands,” he said in a statement.

Biden campaigned on a post-Trump reopening to Cuba, described by administration officials as a position somewhere between Obama’s outreach and Trump’s draconian measures, including sharp restrictions on travel to the island by U.S. citizens and residents, and on remittances — payments primarily sent by Cuban Americans to relatives — that have long been a major source of income to Cuba’s cash-strapped economy.

As Biden insisted that human rights would be a major part of his foreign policy, the administration has spent the past several months making overtures to anti-government dissidents in Cuba as well as to Cuban Americans, lawmakers and experts in this country to determine the most effective ways to help the Cuban people without helping their government.

Over the past 10 days, that effort moved into overdrive.

Building an evidentiary package documenting abuse and corruption under the Global Magnitsky Act “normally . . . takes weeks of work,” a senior administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity under terms set by the White House. Instead, Biden “had State and Treasury drop everything they were doing and put something together in the space of a week.”

The sanctions freeze any assets under U.S. jurisdiction and prohibit U.S. travel, although they are most effective as a form of public naming and shaming.

Biden has also called for the swift release of those arrested during the protests and has ordered efforts to mobilize the international community to condemn the Cuban government’s actions. In the past, many countries that were willing to condemn human rights abuses often stopped short of taking action against Cuba during decades of unrelenting U.S. pressure against the island’s leaders, pressure that included covert assassination attempts and a harsh economic embargo.

The government in Havana has accused the United States of fomenting the demonstrations, which erupted largely over economic hardships that the government blames on the embargo but which the protesters say are the result of corruption and strict communist control.

Biden also has directed research into how to circumvent the government’s ability to stop Internet access and has formed a task force on allowing remittances from relatives and others living in the United States to Cubans without benefiting the government.

At the same time, the administration is trying to figure out how it can reopen its consulate in Havana to begin issuing visas to Cubans who want to leave. The United States allots 20,000 visas a year to potential Cuban immigrants, a process that was stopped when Trump closed the consulate after mysterious illnesses afflicted a number of U.S. diplomats in Havana.

As part of an interagency effort, the CIA has appointed a senior official to ascertain both the cause and perpetrator of the maladies, which have now struck hundreds of people in U.S. diplomatic facilities in countries around the world. Cuba has denied any connection to the matter, and the focus has shifted to possible Russian responsibility.

“We are trying to do it in a way that we’re guaranteeing the safety of U.S. personnel,” the senior official said of deliberations about the consulate. With no solid answers on the cause of the illnesses or on who might be behind them, “it takes time.”

Officials have emphasized that there are no easy paths to any of those goals. Some have suggested using satellites to beam an Internet connection to the personal smartphones that Cubans have only recently been allowed to purchase. Others have proposed launching highflying balloons to relay the signals.

Possible solutions are “constantly evolving,” the senior official said. “Democratic actors around the world are trying to reduce efforts by autocratic regimes to restrict the information flow. . . . There are lots of experts and lots of ideas.”

Although some lawmakers have demanded that remittances be allowed, others have said they would inevitably benefit the Cuban government, in particular the military, which historically has taken a cut of dollars arriving from overseas. Biden said last week that he was willing to lift the limits on the payments “as long as the Cuban military was not taking a percentage,” leaving open the question of whether a different bank, even one under state control, could handle the flow of money.

“The way we see it,” the official said, “we want to provide agency to Cuban Americans so that they can make the decision about how they support members of their families.”

Existing U.S. restrictions on dealings with Fincimex, the military-controlled bank, mean that “right now, you have to have mules that will take hard cash onto the island.” But there are additional difficulties in converting other currencies to Cuban pesos, particularly at a fair rate.

Pedro Freyre, chair of international practice at the Akerman law firm and a Cuban American who serves on the board of the U.S.-Cuba Business Council, said that the demonstrations were a “wake-up call” that the Cuban government could not easily ignore.

“As for the administration,” he said, Cuban officials had hoped they were “going to see a significant change from the Trump administration. The reality on the ground has now shifted to the point where there will be a change, but it’s not going to be in the direction the [Cuban] government wanted or expected.”