US bank brings Cuba across the Rubicon

Cuban leader Raúl Castro and US President Barack Obama announced plans to normalise relations in December. (AFP)

Cuban leader Raúl Castro and US President Barack Obama announced plans to normalise relations in December. (AFP)

Stonegate Bank of Fort Lauderdale has agreed to handle Cuba’s diplomatic transactions, including paying bills and issuing visas, according to two people who asked not to be identified in advance of an announcement. The bank did not respond to requests for comment.

The US government has worked to assure financial institutions it’s legal to open a US account for Cuba’s embassy, according to an American official, who requested anonymity as he was not authorised to speak to the media.

Until now, US and foreign banks refused to open an account for Cuba because of concerns about hefty fines for sanctions violations. In 2013, M&T Bank told Cuba it would no longer provide services to the Cuban interests section, a stripped-down diplomatic office in Washington.
Emails seeking comment from the Cuban interests section and the United Nations’ Cuban mission weren’t answered.

The move comes as US-Cuba talks on re-opening embassies in Washington and Havana, after 54 years, resumed in Washington this week. US President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro announced plans to normalise relations in December. President Barack Obama notified Congress on April 14 that Cuba is being taken off the state department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, a move that will take effect by the end of May. Congress hasn’t indicated whether it will seek to block the decision within the 45 days lawmakers have to do so.

Still, a US official said the two countries have issues to resolve before complete diplomatic ties can be restored.

Roberta Jacobson, assistant secretary of state, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations committee on Wednesday: “While progress has been made in our efforts to re-establish diplomatic relations, we’re not there yet.”

Cuba is pressing the US to cease its pro-democracy programmes in Cuba. The Obama administration has refused to do so. The US is seeking approval to have more diplomats in Havana and remove restrictions on their travel outside the capital, and an end to inspections of cargo delivered to the diplomatic post in Havana.

Jacobson told senators, although Cuba still doesn’t respect basic rights and freedoms of its citizens, allowing greater travel and commerce will have a positive influence on Cuba.

Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, a Democrat on the foreign relations committee, said any US telecommunications equipment sold to Cuba must have anti-surveillance technology to prevent the government from spying on its people.

The Obama administration has loosened some restrictions on travel and business, mostly with Cuba’s small private sector. It has also urged Congress to begin easing the trade embargo imposed by President John F Kennedy in 1962, after Cuba became a communist nation and nationalised private property.

Lifting the embargo would require legislation that would meet resistance from congressional opponents of relations with the Castro regime.

The Obama administration must notify Congress at least 15 days before it intends to restore its interests section in Havana to full embassy status. Embassies could reopen and ambassadors may be named as soon as June, although opponents of normalisation in the US Senate may attempt to block confirmation of Obama’s choice for the post.

Secretary of State John Kerry has expressed interest in visiting Havana after relations are re-established. Renovation work on Cuba’s small and ageing interests section in Washington is already under way, with jackhammers in full force.

US-Cuba talks on Thursday will be the fourth round of negotiations since January over the terms for normalising relations. – © Bloomberg

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