Cuba sets up hurricane relief bank account. U.S. citizens should be wary of contributing

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla addresses the United Nations General Assembly on Friday. He expressed gratitude for the assistance offered to Cuba in its recovery from Hurricane Irma.
Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla addresses the United Nations General Assembly on Friday. He expressed gratitude for the assistance offered to Cuba in its recovery from Hurricane Irma. AP

After Hurricane Irma’s devastating 72-hour pass through northern Cuba, the Cuban government took a novel approach to storm relief: It posted a Cuban bank account number on social media where humanitarian donations can be sent.

Even though the Cuban Foreign Ministry helpfully provided the SWIFT transfer code to facilitate donations to an account at the government Banco Financiera Internacional, U.S. humanitarians should think twice.

While people around the world can use the bank transfer method, it isn’t advisable for U.S. citizens. “The embargo would make this unavailable to U.S. citizens,” said Robert Muse, a Washington lawyer. Embargo law is designed “to prevent direct contributions of money to the Cuban government.”

Many Cuba watchers were surprised by such a direct pitch for relief.

But Cubadebate, an official Cuba website, said the account was set up after multiple requests “from friends around the globe” who wanted to help Cuba recover from the hurricane, which resulted in 10 deaths, widespread coastal flooding and extensive damage to agriculture, tourism facilities and homes.

When Mariela Castro Espin, the daughter of Cuban leader Raúl Castro, posted information about the new bank account on Facebook, her account was blocked. Less than 24 hours later, it was restored.

“Back to Facebook! Grateful for the solidarity of friends,” she wrote and reproduced a message of apology that said a Facebook employee had eliminated her post by error. Her first order of business: reposting the bank account information.

Cubadebate also reported that when “a friend of Cuba” in the Netherlands tried to deposit a hurricane relief donation in the account of Friendship Association RFA-Cuba, a Cuba solidarity organization based in Germany, ING — a Dutch bank — refused, saying it does not carry out direct or indirect transactions with certain countries, including Cuba.

“The banks are terrified about getting nailed over dealing with dollars in Cuba transactions,” said Muse. In 2012, ING was sanctioned by the United States and agreed to pay a $619 million penalty for illegally moving money through the U.S. banking system on behalf of clients in Cuba, Iran and other countries.

But there are legal means for U.S. citizens who want to send hurricane relief to Cubans, Muse said.

They can send remittances to family and friends or send gift parcels addressed to individuals or religious, charitable or educational organizations. The U.S. publishes a list of items, such as medicine and food, that are allowed to be sent in gift parcels.

Humanitarian donations also may be made to church and other organizations in Cuba that have verifiable distribution systems on the island, Muse said. “Donations typically have to go to non-state actors,” he said. But Cuba also has to agree to accept such donations.

When U.S. State Department officials gave a briefing earlier this week on planned U.S. hurricane assistance to Caribbean nations hit hard by Hurricane Maria and Hurricane Irma, mention of Cuba was notably absent.

Asked about it, Kenneth Merten, deputy assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, responded: “The Cubans do not ask for assistance there typically. I’m hard pressed to remember if the Cubans have ever asked us for assistance after a hurricane or some kind of natural disaster so that — there is your answer.”

During a speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Friday, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez said he wanted to express “profound gratitude for those who have offered to assist Cuba” and offered to help hurricane victims in neighboring Caribbean islands to “the extent of our modest possibilities.”

“I want to convey the testimony of the people of Cuba, who are currently carrying out a colossal effort to recover from the severe damages caused by hurricane Irma to housing, agriculture, the power system and other services,” Rodríguez said.