Cuban diplomats in Washington resume consular work

Averting a chaotic disruption in U.S. visits to Cuba, the island’s diplomatic mission in Washington announced Monday it had resumed processing visas and passports and other consular matters until at least Feb. 17.

The announcement said the resumption came after M&T Bank, based in Buffalo, agreed to postpone the closure of the Cuban mission’s accounts until March 1, and to continue to accept deposits for consular fees until Feb. 17.

When Cuban diplomats in Washington stopped processing consular requests Nov. 26, there were fears the move would jeopardize travel as tens of thousands of Cuban-Americans and other U.S. residents prepared to visit the island for the busy year-end holidays.

The halt also sparked concerns that the cut in revenues would lead to the closure of the entire Cuban diplomatic mission in Washington — since consular fees pay for salaries and monthly bills — and, in turn, force the closure of the U.S. mission in Havana.

The Cuban mission said Monday it had “immediately restored consular services, in a temporary arrangement,” after M&T notified diplomats Friday that it had decided “to grant an extension to the definitive closing of the accounts.”

The mission “continues to carry out efforts to identify a new bank that would assume the operation of its accounts, and if that is achieved it will be able to definitively normalize the consular services,” the announcement said.

It added that M&T’s decision had affected the accounts of “the Cuban diplomatic missions in the United States” — for the first time indicating that the island’s mission to the United Nations in New York City also would have been impacted.

The two countries’ diplomatic missions are officially known as Interests Sections because they do not have full diplomatic relations. Technically, they are part of the Swiss embassies in Havana and Washington — though both countries staff them with their own diplomats.

M&T notified Cuba in July that it planned to stop servicing all foreign consulates, not just Cuba’s. U.S. State Department and Cuban government officials have been searching for a replacement, but that has been difficult because of a combination of factors.

Some banks have been getting out of all international transactions because of the onerous screening, record-keeping and reporting controls imposed by U.S. laws against money laundering, fraud, terrorist financing and other crimes.

The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the Patriot Act, the Bank Secrecy Act and the Antiterrorism Act of 1996 all require controls. In addition, Cuba is subject to other requirements because of the U.S. trade embargo and its inclusion on the U.S. list of state sponsors of international terrorism.

State Department officials have portrayed M&T’s decision to close all its consular accounts as a purely commercial judgment and said the U.S. government cannot force any private bank to hold accounts for any country.

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