In a startling move, the Cuban government’s diplomatic mission in Washington announced Tuesday that it was suspending consular services until further notice — in effect no longer issuing passports or visas for travel to Cuba.
The decision will upend the thriving travel business to Cuba that has seen hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans and Cubans who live in the United States taking frequent trips to the island to visit relatives. In addition, almost 100,000 other U.S. citizens have traveled to Cuba on so-called “people-to-people” trips under rules relaxed by the Obama administration.
Among the three million visitors to the island in 2012, about 476,000 were Cuban Americans and Cuban residents of the United States who said they were visiting relatives. Another 98,000 were registered as members of people-to-people programs in which travelers engage in specific educational or cultural activities that cannot involve tourism. Tourist travel to Cuba remains prohibited.
The State Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
But an executive of one of the oldest Cuba travel companies in Miami, Marazul Charters, said the decision constitutes a ”crisis” in the industry because it comes as travel agencies geared up for the heavy year-end travel season.
Armando García, president of Marazul Charters, said, however, that the crisis may be a temporary problem — but only if the issue is resolved. The Cuban Interests Section in Washington blamed the problem on a decision by the bank that managed its accounts to stop providing the service and the diplomatic mission’s inability to find a replacement bank.
Garcia also noted that travelers who already have valid passports and visas will have no trouble traveling to Cuba. But he added that he had no way of knowing how many people ultimately will be unable to secure travel documents.
A longtime Cuba expert in Miami said the suspension of consular services likely will reduce not only trips to Cuba, but also revenue the Cuban government derives from travelers.
“This will reduce travel to Cuba,” said Jaime Suchlicki, director of the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. “It will also reduce income for the Cuban government and make some people happy and other people unhappy.”
Suchlicki was referring to the divided opinions among Cuban-Americans and others. Many Cuban-Americans favor travel to Cuba to see family members, but others oppose it. They argue that the more travel the more income the Cuban government earns, eroding the goals of the trade embargo. There are also groups that seek an end to the tourist travel prohibition.
The surprise announcement comes just weeks before travel to the island was expected to pick up for the year-end holidays and only days after two officials from the Cuban Interests Section in Washington traveled to Miami to meet quietly with companies that handle travel between the island and the United States.
In a two-page statement, the Cuban Interests Section in Washington blamed the suspension of consular services on a decision by its bank, M&T Bank. The mission said that on July 12 M&T Bank advised the interests section that it would no longer handle services for foreign embassies.
M&T Bank’s public relations office did not respond to a request for comment.
Since July, the Cuban mission said, it has tried to find a new bank — even with the assistance of the U.S. State Department — but has failed to find a new service provider. The Cuban statement blamed the U.S. trade embargo for the mission’s inability to find a replacement bank.
“Due to the existing restrictions stemming from the policy of economic, commercial and financial blockade by the North American government against Cuba, it has been impossible for the Interests Section to find until now a U.S. bank or any other bank based in the United States willing to take over the bank accounts of Cuban diplomatic missions,” the statement said.
As a result, it added, the mission decided to suspend as of Tuesday and until further notice all consular services. Only humanitarian requests for travel will be processed, the statement said.
That means 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. U.S. citizens born in Cuba generally are required to obtain Cuban passports to travel to the island.
“The Interests Section regrets the impact this situation will cause to Cuban and North American citizens, given the inability of the consular section to continue issuing passports, visas and document processing,” the statement said.