New crisis for U.S.-Cuba trips

News from Cuba | Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The roast pork will have to wait. Some of the people who had planned to travel from the U.S. to Cuba in December to celebrate Christmas, bid farewell to 2013 and spend the school holidays with their relatives will be unable to do so “until further notice.”

The reason is that the Cuban Interests Section in Washington has had to suspend its consular services for lack of a banking institution to handle its accounts, something that will directly affect the issuance of passport, visas and other routine services.

“Due to the restrictions still in force, derived from the U.S. policy of economic, commercial and financial blockade against Cuba, and despite the numerous efforts made with the Department of State and several banks, it has been impossible for the Cuban Interests Section to find a U.S. or international bank with branches in the U.S. to operate the bank accounts of the Cuban diplomatic missions,” said an official note from the Cuban government.

Last July, the M&T Bank, which traditionally provided its services to foreign diplomatic missions, gave the Cuban Interests Section and the Permanent Mission of Cuba to the United Nations a deadline to find a new bank with which to work. The search was futile.

Despite the fact that, according to the note, the government of the United States should “meet the commitment undertaken under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations,” no solution has been found since July that might guarantee the continuity of the banking services.

Consulted by Progreso Weekly, José Pertierra, a Washington-based attorney of Cuban origin, said that “due to the blockade and the fact that Cuba is incredibly on the list of countries that support terrorism, the banking rules facing any bank that dares to accept the Interests Section as a client are so, so cumbersome that it becomes more expensive for the bank to have Cuba as a client than to refuse to provide banking services to it.”

“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 extraterritorial.”

“A few months ago,” Pertierra recalled, “the Italian bank Intesa San Paolo had to pay Washington $3 million for violations of the blockade. And a few years ago, the Swiss bank UBS had to pay a $140-million fine simply because it exchanged old dollar bills for new, for Cuba. Another Swiss bank, Credit Suisse AG, had to pay a $536-million fine for alleged violations of the economic blockade against Cuba and Iran. Lloyds Bank of London paid an $80 million fine, etc.”

While the Cuban diplomats searched unsuccessfully for a solution, Obama stated in Miami, less than a month ago, the need to “update” United States policy toward Cuba. It is obvious that this update, increasingly more justified, has not come in time to prevent the current policy of blockade to affect ordinary citizens, probably thousands of Cubans and Americans who were packing their suitcases for the coming weeks.

Armando García, president of Marazul Charters, the largest Miami-Cuba charter airline, said that at present every person living in the United States who travels to Cuba requires some sort of consular process furnished by the Cuban Interests Section.

“From processing passports for Cuban-born travelers and visas for U.S.-born travelers who are going to Cuba to visit relatives to those who travel under general or specific licenses granted by the U.S. Treasury Department, all of them need consular processing provided by the Consulate directly or through authorized travel agencies.”

“Not having the Consulate in Washington available will terminate the regular procedures and will have an immediate impact on those who are interested in traveling, yet have not documents in hand.”

This situation also contrasts with the statements made Nov. 18 by Secretary of State John Kerry at the Organization of American States, when he underscored the decision of his government to stimulate “people-to-people” exchanges.

“We are committed to this human interchange,” he said, openly explaining his diplomacy for a change in Cuba. “In the United States we believe that our people are actually our best ambassadors. They are ambassadors of our ideals, of our values, of our beliefs.”

However, without visas processed by the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, those “ambassadors” are temporarily out of a job.

So as not to waste time or money, the president of Marazul recommended to would-be travelers to consult with their travel agents before the date planned for the trip.

“Those who are interested in traveling or have planned to travel soon, if they have up-to-date, valid passports (if born in Cuba) or their visas on hand or at their agency (if born elsewhere), probably will not be affected and can travel,” García said.

For decades, U.S. policy toward Cuba has not taken into account the general interests of Americans or Cubans who are anxious to embrace their relatives on the opposite shore. Washington’s traditional attitude has been to please an ever smaller and less-influential sector of the conservative Cuban émigré community in Florida.

Many hope that the imperative solutions this case deserves, for the common good, are contained in that “whole drawer full of good ideas” that Obama described at the home of Mas Santos while he raised money for his party and said that he had noticed changes in Cuba.

It would be a good way to demonstrate that his government seriously is trying to solve “the political dysfunction that exists in Washington.”

Related reading: Consular business in Washington suspended until further notice.

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