Cuba’s diplomatic mission in Washington said Friday that it had once again suspended consular services and will no longer be granting visas, except in humanitarian cases, because it can’t find a U.S. bank to handle its accounts.
If a solution to the impasse isn’t reached soon, family visits to the island, as well as academic, educational, sports, cultural, scientific and other exchanges between Cuba and the United States, could be impacted.
“It also impacts Cubans in the United States who want to get their passports renewed and have documents legalized for citizenship,’’ said Vivian Mannerud, whose company Airline Brokers sells tickets and makes arrangements for trips to Cuba.
Like many local companies that sell tickets for Cuba charters, Mannerud said she has some visas on hand for upcoming trips. “But if a new group books, I don’t know if I will have enough,” she said.
For many years, Buffalo-based M&T Bank handled the accounts of the Cuban Interests Section and the Cuban Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York. But last year, M&T informed the Cuban government that it was getting out of the business of providing financial services for diplomatic missions.
The Cuban Interests Section temporarily shut down its consular section Nov. 26 after it reached a previous M&T deadline for closing its accounts. But less than two weeks later, with the peak holiday travel period approaching, M&T relented and gave Cuba an extension.
Cuba resumed issuing visas and has been looking for a new bank to handle its accounts.
Under the new timetable, the Interests Section said that Friday was the last day that M&T would accept deposits of Cuban fees for visas, passports and other services and that March 1 is the date the bank has set for closing Cuba’s accounts.
“In spite of the huge efforts made, as a result of the restrictions in force, derived from the policy of economic, commercial and financial blockade by the U.S. government against Cuba, it has been impossible for the Interests Section to find a U.S.-based bank that could operate the bank accounts of the Cuban diplomatic missions,” the Interests Section said in a press release.
The U.S. State Department said that since last summer, it has been “actively working with the Cuban Interests Section to identify a new bank to provide services to the Cuban missions” and would continue to assist them as they try to find a long-term solution.
The State Department said it had reached out to more than 50 banks and understood that several might be weighing whether to provide the missions with banking services.
“If would be nice if a Cuban-American banker would step up to the plate and help the community with this,’’ said Mannerud.
Travel between the United States and the island has continued to grow. The Havana Consulting Group estimates that Cuban-Americans and other Americans on so-called people-to-people exchanges made an estimated 600,000 trips last year.
One reason handling Cuba’s accounts may not be very attractive to U.S. banks is because Cuba is on the U.S. State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. Bank accounts of countries on the list are subject to additional regulatory oversight and reporting requirements.
The Interests Section apologized for the inconvenience the suspension of consular services might cause to Cuban and American citizens and the “negative impact” it might have on visits to the island.
But it made no mention of suspending banking services for the U.S. Interests Section in Havana — although the two diplomatic missions generally follow the principle of reciprocity in terms of mutual restrictions on operations and staffing levels.