Cuba resumes processing all consular affairs

Cuba’s diplomatic mission in Washington has resumed all consular services, including the issuance of visas, clearing away a roadblock that had threatened to severely disrupt the summer high-travel season, according to Miami travel agents.

A mission announcement Monday said that it had resumed renewing Cuban passports but made no mention of other services such as the issuance of new passports or the entry visas required of all Cuban and Cuban-American visitors.

Miami travel agents summoned to a meeting Wednesday at the mission said Cuban diplomats told them that they are now processing all consular matters — in essence, totally normalizing the process except for requiring that payments be made in cash.

The mission, known as an Interests Section because Cuba and the United States do not have full diplomatic relations, suspended all consular services on Feb. 14 after M&T Bank of Buffalo, New York, shut down the accounts the mission used to deposit the consular fees it collected.

The travel agents said they will likely have to fly employees to Washington to hand-deliver the cash for the consular services, which might increase costs and prices and hit some of the smaller companies especially hard.

“Maybe we will find a better way of paying later, but for now that’s all we can think of,” said one Cuba travel industry official who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The official added that some questions remain about passports sent in for renewal just before the Feb. 14 shutdown, and still in the hands of the consulate. A few travel agencies seemed to have had advance notice of the Monday announcement, the official added.

Monday’s announcement said that those who want to renew their Cuban passports for travel between May 15 and Aug. 31 should contact travel agents, which would submit the applications to the consulate in Washington. Cuban passports are valid for six year but must be revalidated every two years. Visas can be single or multiple entry.

The Cuban government does not publish exact figures for the number of U.S. residents who travel to the island, the overwhelming majority of them Cubans and Cuban-Americans who visit relatives. The number for 2012 has been estimated at between 400,000 and 550,000.

Peak travel time is the summer, when kids are out of school in both Cuba and the United States.

M&T Bank has never explained why it closed all the accounts it handled for Cuba, including some for the Cuban mission to the United Nations in New York City, as well as other countries.

Some U.S. banks have been getting out of all international transactions because of the complex screening, record-keeping and reporting controls required by U.S. laws on 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.

Some remittance and humanitarian organizations that send money or goods to Cuba have been or denied new accounts by banks that say they simply don’t want to risk violating U.S. restrictions on Cuba.

State Department officials have said that they’ve been trying for months to help the communist government find a U.S. bank that will handle its accounts, but it cannot force private enterprises to do business with Havana.

The Cuban diplomatic mission’s announcement Monday said it has not found a bank to replace M&T “because of the economic, commercial and financial blockade imposed on Cuba by the United States.”

Attending the gathering in Washington was Josefina de la Caridad Vidal, director of the Cuban Foreign Ministry’s North American Division, according to the travel agents.

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