The Obama administration said Wednesday it was “actively” assisting the Cuban diplomatic mission in Washington find a new bank willing to handle its accounts so it can resume issuing passports and visas to people who want to travel to the island.
In a surprise announcement on Tuesday, the Cuban Interests Section in the U.S. capital said it was immediately suspending consular services because its bank, M&T Bank, no longer wished to provide financial services to foreign missions.
While some Cuba experts sought to portray the Cuban government’s announcement as a pressure tactic against the United States, the State Department appeared to adopt a conciliatory and cooperative tone in its first public statement on the matter.
“The Department of State has been actively working with [the Cuban Interests Section] to identify a new bank to provide services to the Cuban missions,” a department statement said. “We would like to see the Cuban missions return to full operations.”
Administration officials indicated that the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba was not related to the bank’s decision. These officials said the bank decided more than a year ago to disengage from providing bank services to any diplomatic mission, and that it had authorization from the Treasury Department to provide services
Meanwhile, Cuban-American Republican U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, of Miami, accused the Cuban government of using the suspension of consular services to pressure the U.S. government to delete Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.
“This is nothing more than another pathetic attempt by the Castro brothers to get off the state sponsors of terrorism list,” said Ros-Lehtinen in a statement. “The Cuba regime was notified in June of this problem, yet they inform the public just before the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays in order to apply the greatest pressure to the Obama administration.”
The list of state sponsors of terrorism has included Cuba since March 1, 1982. Iran, Sudan and Syria are also on the State Department list.
Armando García, president of one of the oldest companies in Miami involved in organizing travel to Cuba, said the suspension created a crisis in the Cuba travel industry because it comes as agencies were gearing up for the heavy year-end travel period.
Last year, about 476,000 Cuban-Americans and Cuban residents of the United States traveled to the island to visit relatives. An estimated 98,000 other U.S. residents also went to Cuba on “people-to-people” trips authorized by the Obama administration.
For his part, a prominent academic who specializes on Cuban affairs, theorized in a written analysis Wednesday that the suspension of consular services may be aimed at reducing the number of Cuban-American visitors and increasing the number of non-Cuban U.S. travelers to the island.
“Perhaps the Cuban government sees this suspension as a way to put pressure on the U.S. and its ban on Americans traveling to Cuba and to test the political influence of segments of the Cuban-American community that want the end of economic sanctions,” said Jaime Suchlicki, director of the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies in an article titled “The Latest Cuban Gamble.”
Tourist travel to Cuba remains prohibited. The Administration has authorized people-to-people trips that allow U.S. citizens who have no relatives on the island to travel there for specific educational or cultural purposes, not tourism.
Trips are also allowed for U.S. citizens and residents who have relatives on the island, mostly Cuban-Americans or Cuban residents of the United States.
In general, Cuban Americans are required to obtain a Cuban passport to visit relatives in Cuba. Non-Cubans generally are required to obtain a visa to travel to the island.
These documents are generally issued by the Cuban Interests Section in Washington D.C.
Cuba does not have an embassy because the United States and the island do not have normal diplomatic relations. Relations were severed in January 1961 by President Eisenhower.
President Carter sought to improve relations with Cuba and in 1977 agreed with Havana to open interests sections in each other’s capitals.