If you’re banking on a holiday visit to Cuba, you’d better read this

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!


ETECSA to hire self-employed “communications agents”increase prices

Cuba’s state communications company, ETECSA, will begin hiring self-employed “communications agents,” a new category of legal self-employment, reports AFP. The agents, who will be paid by the company on commission, will be required to obtain a license and pay associated taxes. Under this license, agents will be allowed to take phone bill payments, sell prepaid phone and Internet cards, reload used cards and offer local, regional and international phone calls from their homes. What this means, according to the Associated Press, is that Cubans licensed as “communications agents” might now turn “their homes into phone booths,” changing the way Cubans reach one another.

This announcement marks another opportunity for state enterprises to contract with self-employed workers; last month, Cuba began allowing state tourism companies to contract workers in that sector.

ETECSA has also reported across-the-board price increases to be put into place on January 1st, 2014, reports OnCuba. According to the announcement, prices will increase for cell phone calls, local and long-distance fixed-line calls, installation fees, and monthly plans as well as other “supplementary” services. Changes are only being made to services provided in national currency. A description of the price changes is available from Granma.

Cuba’s government establishes regulations for marine tourism

Cuba’s government has passed a decree authorizing the construction and equipment of marinas built for marine tourism, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune and Cafe Fuerte. President Raúl Castro signed the decree, which seeks to boost Cuba’s marine tourism by creating a National Nautical Commission to coordinate nautical tourism policies, and by providing norms for processing the arrivals and departures of recreational boats, such as yachts.

According to new regulations, each vessel arriving at a marina will sign a service contract including the rights and obligations of both the ship captain and the marina administration. A web page will be created in order to allow yacht captains and owners to request advance permission for the entrance of their vessel and its crew. All services and documentation necessary for docking at a marina will have a fixed cost of 55 CUC. The law also establishes that recreational vessels will be permitted to remain on Cuban waters for up to five years, a period that may be extended by the marina.

Spokesman for Havana archdiocese urges government to speed up reform process

In an article published in the archdiocese’s magazine, Palabra Nueva, Orlando Marquez, a spokesman for Cardinal Jaime Ortega, urges the government to accelerate economic reforms, reports AFP. “We cannot hope to build a prosperous country and society without prosperous citizens and without opening the doors to financial sources that generate prosperity,” he writes. Marquez argues that the updating of the economic model needs to come sooner rather than later to create “conditions that spur birth and discourage emigration of young people who would be ready to work and invest their capital and know-how in Cuba, including Cuban émigrés willing to return.”


Guatánamo closure appointees make first joint visit

Paul Lewis, the U.S. Defense Department’s Special Envoy for Detainee Affairs, and Clifford Sloan, a State Department Special Envoy, met with troops at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, on Monday, reports the Associated Press. Paul Lewis was appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Defense in October as the Defense Department’s special envoy tasked with overseeing the closure of the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay. Sloan was appointed as the State Department’s Guantanamo special envoy in June.

CUNY to host conference on Cuba’s economic reforms

The City University of New York will host a conference on “The Cuban Economy in Transformation” December 16th, reports Cuba Standard. Featured panelists include Pavel Vidal, Cuban economist and professor at the Universidad Javeriana in Cali, Colombia, Mario González-Corzo, associate professor at CUNY and faculty fellow at CUNY’s Bildner Center for Western Hemisphere Studies, and Mauricio Font, also at the Bildner Center. This week in recommended reading, we feature Michael Shank’s takeaway from our recent conference, “Cubans in the New Economy”, and his thoughts on the implications for U.S. policy.


Cuba expands Ukrainian jet deal

Cuba plans to expand its contract with Ukrainian aircraft manufacturer Antonov Design Bureau and Russia’s Ilyushin Finance Co. to include seven more An-158 regional passenger jets, reports Cuba Standard. The original contract was signed in 2011 and included 3 jets, each of which seats 99 passengers. Although the jet model includes some U.S.-made parts, those make up less than 10% of the final product and are therefore not in violation of the U.S. trade embargo. In September, Cuba finalized a deal with Antonov to refurbish single-engine bi-planes.

Cuba’s President solicits Russian oil investment for Mariel project

Cuba’s President Raúl Castro met with Igor Sechin, president of Russian oil company Rosneft, to discuss investing in the Mariel Special Development Zone, reports EFE and Cuba Standard. The $900-million overhaul of the port of Mariel will include a 6,550-foot dock capable of accommodating deep-draft vessels, as well as a terminal with capacity to receive some three million containers annually. According to the article, Cuba also plans to establish a logistics base for oil exploration.

Cuba’s Exclusive Economic Zone is divided into 59 blocks, and 22 of those blocks are currently under contract to foreign oil companies. Earlier this year, Russian oil company Zarubezhneft abandoned one off-shore drilling project in Cuba, saying it would return in 2014.

Around the Region

Honduras presidential elections contested

On Sunday, October 24th, Hondurans went to the polls to vote for a new president. Though the vote count is not complete, electoral officials have announced a decisive lead for Juan Orlando Hernández (34%) of the country’s ruling National Party, trailed by Xiomara Castro of the newly-founded LIBRE party, with around 29% of the vote, reports BBC.

As our Cuba Central Newsblast was prepared for publication, electoral officials in Honduras had not officially announced a new president, but three candidates have declared themselves as having won the election: Juan Orlando Hernández, Xiomara Castro, and most recently, Salvador Nasralla of the Anti-Corruption Party (PAC), reports AP and Proceso Digital. Xiomara Castro is the wife of former president Manuel Zelaya, who was deposed in a 2009 military coup and, if elected, would be the country’s first female president.

While Juan Orlando Hernández has announced his transition team, Castro’s party has announced it will not accept the elections results, saying that she will make further statements on the results today.

Recommended Reading

Helping Cuba on the Road to Reform, Michael Shank, US News

Michael Shank, Director of Foreign Policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, shares insight on Cuba’s economic reforms as conveyed by Cuban guests at CDA’s conference on “Cubans in the New Economy” earlier this month. He writes: “Without question, the winds of change are coming to Cuba…What’s needed now, then, is a strong public statement from Obama that the economic reforms in Cuba are heading in the right direction and that boosting incomes and increasing the autonomy of the Cuban people is a good thing. No matter why the Cubans are making these reforms, the results are clearly in line with the historic goals of U.S. foreign policy.”

Critics question regime-change strategy in Cuba, Tracey Eaton, Along the Malecón

Investigative journalist Tracey Eaton has published a companion article to his two-part video history of USAID’s regime-change programs in Cuba, released last week in collaboration with CDA.

Two Recent Signs of Change in Washington’s Cuba Policies, Wilfredo Cancio Isla, Havana Times

Wilfredo Cancio Isla takes a look at the changes the Obama administration has made to U.S. policy toward Cuba. He sees President Obama and Secretary Kerry’s recent statements on Cuba as “signs that suggest relations between Washington and Havana may be evolving.” He concludes, “We should not jump to any conclusions. The embargo is still in place and seems to be set in stone for the time being. What we can say is that the map of political and social relations between the two countries is beginning to be drawn up with a different rhetoric.”

Latin America sees straight through John Kerry’s ‘Monroe’ speechFederico Finchelstein and Pablo Piccato, the Guardian

After U.S.  Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent address at the Organization of American States proclaiming the death of the Monroe Doctrine, Finchelstein and Piccato argue that the speech has received little response from Latin America, because “the real issues that separate US policies from Latin American interests today are no longer found in overt political and military intervention. …the real concerns of US policy in the region were all but ignored in the speech.”  They include immigration and the growing role of China in the region, what they call “the elephant in the room,” among issues they say Kerry left unmentioned.

Key West to Cuba Flights Struggle to Take Off, Christine Armario, the Associated Press

Christine Armario profiles the history of travel between Florida’s Key West and Cuba in the context of Mambi Travel and Air Marbrisa’s recent attempts to restore the route. Despite hurdles, the companies have set a December 15 departure date.

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