Barclays bank and the US vendetta

Campaign News | Tuesday, 24 July 2007

CSC Director, Rob Miller wonders who's running Britain's policy agenda - the Cuba-hating United States or No10?

FIRST, Hilton Hotel ordered its hotels to ban Cubans. Now, Barclays Bank has announced that it too is acting to comply with US legislation against the socialist state.

It was reported in April that the firm had ordered branches to tell two Cuban organisations "to take their accounts elsewhere" in response to Washington's ban on companies that trade with Havana from operating in the US.

MPs, trade unions and the Cuba Solidarity Campaign have joined forces to launch a campaign against Barclays' discriminatory actions.

All-party group on Cuba chairman Ian Gibson MP described the ban as not only "a nasty harassment of a Caribbean country but also an invasion of our own rules and laws."

The US appears to making a concerted effort to apply pressure on international banking and financial systems.

In June, Cuba's national assembly condemned the discriminatory decisions of Union Bank of Switzerland (UBS) and BANISTO (Colombia). The two banks have refused to accept Cuba's contributions to Inter-Parliamentary Unions in Europe and Latin America, preventing Cuba from honouring its obligations to these international institutions.

In 2006, UBS and fellow Swiss bank Credit Suisse severed their ties with Cuba and closed any accounts with Cuban connections. Credit Suisse cited the fact that Cuba was "one of the sensitive countries," without expanding on what that may mean.

In July 2006, the US Treasury Department put the Netherlands Caribbean Bank, an ING joint venture with two Cuban state-owned financial entities, on a list of companies with which US firms and citizens cannot do business. This month, the group finally bowed to US pressure and announced that it will be closing down its banking operations in Havana.

Most recently, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has threatened a long list of international companies and financial institutions for associating with Cuba.

The SEC has placed the companies on its website under a link displaying the names of companies "doing business" in countries designated "state sponsors of terrorism." Companies named include FTSE-listed Reuters, HSBC and Unilever.

This measure prompted the Institute of International Bankers to complain: "This action has been taken without prior public notice or consultation with reporting companies and other interested persons."

The US is focusing on international financial institutions in an effort to shore up its blockade. Increasing trading links with many countries, including Venezuela, China and now Spain, are undermining the blockade and the Cuban economy has been growing with 10 per cent-plus growth rates per annum.

One hundred and forty five MPs from all parties have signed early day motion 1408, which condemns Barclays for its actions.

The motion, which was tabled by Gibson, calls on the government to take immediate action in opposition to the further escalation of extraterritorial legislation imposed by the US on British businesses.

This would not be without precedent.

Earlier this year, Austria's fifth-largest bank BAWAG told around 100 Cuban clients that it had to cancel their accounts because of US sanctions against Cuba.

The Austrian government took swift action.

Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik told the country's parliament that BAWAG had violated EU rules against implementing the US Cuban sanctions on European soil and that she had, therefore, launched proceedings against BAWAG.

"US law is not applicable in Austria," said Plassnik. "We are not the 51st of the United States.

"Neither the EU nor the UN has implemented a general economic or contact embargo against Iran or Cuba. We have started the necessary steps to launch administrative proceedings."

Trade unions such as UNISON, GMB and Unite have also called for the British government to take urgent action.

In April, the Cuba Solidarity Campaign descended on a Barclays shareholders' meeting called to discuss a possible merger with ABN-AMRO.

Shareholders were handed leaflets asking whether they would be opposed to customers closing their Barclays accounts in protest at the bank's boycott of Cuba.

Presented with such a simple business equation, many shareholders were sympathetic.

The many MPs and trade unionists present made it clear that the campaign was not going to go away.

"It would be good if the nation could, once again, mount a boycott of Barclays, like the successful campaign students fought against the company for its support of apartheid in South Africa." says Gibson.

Fellow Labour MP Colin Burgon explains: "Those who prattle on about national sovereignty and losing rights to Brussels are strangely quiet on the fact that the United States is passing legislation which dictates policy in the UK. George Bush wants to turn the screw on Cuba and it's vital that we fight against him."

The campaign against Hilton Hotels shows that pressure can yield results.

Its ban on Cuban guests clearly broke British anti-discrimination laws and the pressure began to show in May, when the group's executive vice-president Ian Carter appealed in person to the all-party parliamentary group on Cuba for its support in looking for a way out of the "legal dilemma" of being stuck between conflicting international laws.

In June, Hilton finally stated in a letter: "Our UK employees will not turn away Cuban guests in violation of local laws including our Race Relations Act."

This is a welcome, if small, victory. It is also one that is yet to be seriously tested.

But this small victory should encourage other companies to ignore the US threat. It also shows that sustained campaigning can make a difference in the ongoing struggle to defend Cuba's sovereignty and against the US blockade.

Yet it is a sad reflection on the Britain's relationship with Washington that our own government is as yet unable - or unwilling - to stand up to overt pressure.

This is a question of national sovereignty for Cuba and, increasingly, for Britain. But, rather than take decisive action, the government continually passes the buck to the European Commission and does its utmost to deflect and avoid the crux of the question - whose rules rule?

Rob Miller is director of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign.


To add your voice to the campaign, you can write to Sir Digby Jones at Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform, 1 Victoria Street, London SW1H 0ET or by email at

Contact the Cuba Solidarity Campaign for motions, letters and further information at or by phone on (020) 7263-6452.

From the Morning Star,

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