Cuba consular problem in Washington may cause ripples for US diplomats in Havana

Cuban diplomats in Washington have said they will wait for a fix to their banking roadblock, but hinted that the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana could suffer the consequences if the problem continues, according to Cuba travel company employees.

The diplomats met with the employees Wednesday to brief them on the situation after they stopped all consular services last week following the M&T Bank’s decision to close the Cuban consulate’s account.

Halting the visa and passport applications created a crisis in the Cuba travel industry because the travel agencies, virtually all of them based in Miami, were preparing for the heavy travel period during the year-end holidays.

Two employees of Miami travel companies who attended the briefing, held at the Cuban diplomatic mission in Washington, said the diplomats indicated they are not interested in a temporary or complicated workaround to the banking issue.

Cash will not be accepted for the visas and passports, the employees said. And there’s no agreement on allowing visitors on so-called people-to-people trips to pay for their $80 visas on arrival in Havana, instead of in Washington.

The diplomats indicated that the Cuban government will wait “a prudent” period for a solution, but that if nothing happens after that the U.S. mission in Havana may be affected, the employees said, asking for anonymity because the briefing was private.

The Cubans gave no details but noted that an agreement between Washington and Havana requires each side to provide the other with the same facilities for their diplomatic missions, the employees added.

Cuban diplomats in Washington have privately said that the money from the consular fees pays their salaries and even their mission’s light bills, hinting that with consular services halted the mission may have to shut its doors.

“If the (Cuban) Interests Section cannot pay its bills, it might have to shut down, and then the U.S. Interests Section may have to shut down,” said one of the employees. “And all that would take Cuba-US relations back 20 years.”

The U.S. and Cuban diplomatic missions are known as Interests Sections because the two countries do not have full relations. They are manned by U.S. and Cuban diplomats but are officially part of the Swiss embassies. It is not known whether the M&T decision also affected the Cuban mission to the United Nations in New York City.

More than 475,000 Cuban-Americans traveled to the island last year to visit relatives under a U.S. “family reunification” license. Another 98,000 U.S. residents went to Cuba on “people-to-people” trips, according to official Cuban figures.

State Department officials have portrayed the decision by M&T Bank, based in Buffalo to close all its consular accounts as a purely commercial decision and said that the U.S. government cannot force any bank to service any country.

Some critics of U.S. sanctions on the island have alleged that M&T shut the Cuban account because of the onerous controls required by the island’s inclusion on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. They urged that Havana be taken off the list immediately.

In turn, some sanctions supporters have argued that Cuba is doing little or nothing to resolve the banking problem because it wants to use the threat of a disruption in U.S.-Cuba travel to win its removal from the terror list.

Cuba has been on the terror list since 1982. Also on it are Iran, Sudan and Syria.

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