In 2006, the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana lost its electricity for days on end, interfering with its basic operations. The U.S. government accused Cuba of bullying and subjecting U.S. diplomats to “the same type of harassment that the Cuban people have had to live with on a daily basis.”
Whether it was retaliation by Cuba for a news ticker the U.S. Interests Section installed – later disconnected by the Obama administration – or caused by the island’s notoriously unruly power grid, the denial of electricity mattered. A principle was at stake. Governments don’t mess with other governments’ embassies. That’s a violation of international law.
Fast forward to 2013 and to Washington, D.C., where the Cuban Interests Section is located. It’s suffering from a power shortage of a different sort, but the effect is equally pernicious.
Due to the weight of U.S. sanctions and fines against financial institutions here and abroad, no commercial bank is presently willing to provide financial services to the mission, so that the Cuban diplomats can process the visas and travel documents that are required for travel.
This means, as the Miami Herald is reporting, that “Cuban-Americans and Cuban residents of the United States will no longer be able to obtain Cuban passports and U.S. travelers authorized to fly to the island will not be able to obtain visas.”
The Cuban Interests Section said in a statement that it “particularly regrets the effects this may have on Cuban and U.S. citizens (…) with the negative impact on family visits, academic, cultural, educational, scientific, sports and other kind of exchange between Cuba and the United States.”
The cut-off of banking services to the Cuban Interests Section has been brewing for a long time. M&T Bank informed the Cubans in July of this year that it would no longer provide banking services to foreign missions.
According to the Associated Press, the U.S. State Department said the bank “severed the relationship due to a ‘business decision,’ and that the government does not have the power to interfere or order any bank to handle a foreign mission’s account.”
But it is, kindly put, an illusion to ascribe this simply to a business decision, as if the bank said it would no longer hand out decorative plates to customers who opened a passbook account.
José Pertierra, a Washington-based attorney, agrees. He told Progreso Weekly, “The problem is not the banks, it’s the government. In this country, banks are a business. The fines imposed on banks that allegedly break the blockade are astronomical and the laws are extra-territorial.”
Since 2009, as Café Fuerte reports, more than $2 billion in fines have been imposed by the Obama administration for violations of the embargo in relation with financial transactions linked to Cuba, double the amount imposed under the Bush administration. No wonder banks are leery of dealing with Cuba’s diplomats.
As enforcement actions have risen, another goal of the administration has been to increase travel by Cuban Americans and other U.S. residents, consistent with its “Reaching out to the Cuban People” strategy.
According to the Miami Herald, its reforms enabled more than half-a-million visitors in 2012: “about 476,000 were Cuban Americans and Cuban residents of the United States” and another “98,000 (who) were registered as members of people-to-people programs” to visit Cuba.
Secretary Kerry said to the OAS in a speech recently, “We are committed to this human interchange, and in the United States we believe that our people are actually our best ambassadors.”
But, the administration must be confused; it cannot be the sheriff on one hand, making it so risky for commercial banks to engage in legal transactions with Cuba that its missions must shut down the issuance of visas and documents required for travel, while trying to prop open the door with its other hand so more family members and other U.S. travelers can visit the island. It has to choose.
Perhaps the administration is seeing the light. The Associated Press is now reporting that the State Department “has been actively working with the Interests Section in Washington to identify a new bank to provide services to the Cuban missions…while ensuring the ongoing security of the U.S. financial system through adequate regulatory supervision. We’d like to see the Cuban missions return to their full operating capacity.”
Armand García, president of Marazul Charters, says of Cuban-born travelers and U.S.-born travelers, “all of them need consular processing provided by the Consulate directly or through authorized travel agencies.” The government needs to get moving, or it could get ugly just in time for the travel rush for the upcoming holidays.
Ten years ago, when President Bush imposed severe restrictions on family travel rights, we ran an advertisement in the El Nuevo Herald under the headline: “One man cancelled Christmas in Cuba, and it wasn’t Fidel Castro….”
The administration had better fix this problem or President Obama, who recently promised to be “creative,” and said “we have to continue to update our policies,” could be that man in 2013.
He needs to encourage State to get the job done and fast. Honor the treaties. Find a bank. Ensure that the financial juice gets turned back on at the Cuban Interests Section as soon as possible. History need not repeat itself. And, of course, have a happy Thanksgiving!