Austrian bank tells Cuban-born customer to go elsewhere

Campaign News | Saturday, 14 April 2007

Blockade is being applied to all Cuba nationals abroad

VIENNA, Austria - An Austrian bank recently bought by a US-led consortium acknowledged Friday that it told a Cuban-born client to take her business elsewhere and suggested that Washington's ban on commerce with Havana was behind the decision.

A resident of good standing in her Austrian village, the client, Maria Cajigal-Ramirez, said that -- until the ruling -- she had thought herself thoroughly integrated into her new life after turning her back on Fidel Castro's Cuba and acquiring Austrian citizenship.

The problem is twofold.

Although in Austria since 1978 and a citizen for seven years, she still holds her old passport, a document she says she does not want but cannot return because Cuban authorities refuse to revoke her old citizenship. And U.S. law prohibits not only American businesses but also their subsidiaries abroad to conduct commerce of any kind with Cuban nationals.

In this case, the company is BAWAG-P.S.K. a bank bought in December by a consortium headed by New York-based Cerberus Capital Management. The bank, linked to questionable loans to collapsed U.S. commodities broker Refco, was sold by its previous owner, the Austrian Trade Union Federation in its efforts to put distance between itself and the financial scandal.

The move brought stability to BAWAG and was hailed by most customers of the bank, Austria's fourth-largest. But for Cajigal-Ramirez, and about 100 other Cuban residents of Austria, it has resulted in a jarring reminder that they are different.

"I feel anguish and disappointment," she said Friday, speaking in German by phone from her home in Frankenmarkt, a village of 4,000 residents about 35 kilometers (20 miles) northeast of Salzburg. "I think I am a victim of discrimination."

Government and opposition politicians criticized the bank's decision.

Erwin Buchinger, the minister of social and consumer affairs, said he was "outraged by the behavior of BAWAG toward Cuban clients." In a statement, he agreed with Cajigal-Ramirez that the move was discriminatory and said it could be illegal. The opposition Green party called the bank's decision "appalling."

In an e-mailed statement, the bank said that U.S. sanctions prohibit "U.S. companies or consortiums to maintain business contacts with Cuba, Cuban companies or individuals of Cuban nationality, wherever these may be located or be domiciled."

"This prohibition extends also to non-U.S. ... companies that are owned or controlled by U.S. individuals or U.S. companies. The latter applies to BAWAG P.S.K. as well, through its acquisition by Cerberus."

A U.S. official, who asked for anonymity in exchange for commenting on the issue, said "about 100 dual nationals were affected," adding those who retained Cuban citizenship even while acquiring a new one were still subject to The Cuban Assets Control Regulations prohibiting United States citizens and corporations from doing business with Cuba or Cuban nationals.

Asked for comment, U.S. Embassy spokesman William H. Wanlund said: "A foreign subsidy of a U.S. corporation is considered a U.S. corporation for the purposes of the law."

Cajigal-Ramirez, who left Cuba on a tourist visa nine years ago and never returned, acknowledged she still holds a Cuban passport but said it was against her will, saying the Cuban Embassy had declined her request to have her original citizenship annulled. No one was answering the telephone at the embassy after hours Friday.

She said word that she was no longer welcome at the bank came by letter Tuesday informing her that all her accounts at her hometown branch would be closed.

"We first laughed," she said, recalling telling her husband that bank authorities were probably worried about the connotations of her birthplace -- Guantanamo Bay, site of the high-security U.S. military prison for terror suspects.

But she said that after being told by an employee at her local branch that the bank did not want to do business with those "originating from Cuba," her mood turned to anger.

"I have been a customer at BAWAG for the last nine years," said Cajigal-Ramirez, 35. "This is a question of violating my human rights." (AP)

April 14, 2007

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