Roadblocks in commerce, travel, and international relations between the United States and Cuba are not new. When the Cuban diplomatic mission in Washington suspended visas in February, the Miami Herald warned that “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.”
The hiccuping visa system just became personal, as a Cuba study abroad program at my university was officially cancelled on Monday, April 7. Understandably, the professors were not comfortable recruiting students for a program that wasn’t guaranteed to happen.
The faculty-led program would have taken students on a three-week course of study in Havana, an unmatched experience focused on economics and supply chain management.
Had the program been unaffected by the visa suspension, it would have cost just shy of US$5000, including six academic credits (nine, if the student applied for Honors College credit), the international airfare, housing, meals, study abroad fees, and personal expenses. You would be hard-pressed to take a vacation at such an exceptional rate, let alone two college classes.
According to Seth Gitter, professor of economics and one of two faculty members who would have led the trip, “Students would have had the opportunity to see how a communist country’s economy functions, visiting a cigar factory, sugar plantation and meeting with business owners and academics. We were also planning on going to a baseball game and seeing some music.”
The consulate problems been brewing for a while, as M&T Bank’s understandable decision to end banking with Cuba’s diplomatic missions emerged and became final. M&T handled the accounts of Cuba’s diplomatic missions, but closed accounts on March 1 after extending the deadline for deposits until February 14.
The United States is in violation of diplomatic treaties with its failure to have fully operative consular offices and services available, but it (thankfully) lacks the power to force private banks to provide services. The State Department has reached out to more than 50 banks in a desperate effort, but has been unsuccessful.
The State Department’s “understanding” of M&T’s decision seems a little insincere, as the department was arguably the root of it all. Since March 1, 1982, Cuba has occupied one of four places on the State Department’s list of “State Sponsors of Terrorism.” This status would be no more than an unsightly label, were it not for the teeth of the Office of Foreign Assets Control, a division of the US Treasury Department.
According to a “Miami lawyer,” unnamed by the Washington Post, “Banks are very nervous about any type of misstep about money flowing to any country on the OFAC list, because the fines, even if you only make a small mistake, are huge,” he said. “You have to scrutinize everything coming in and out. The problem is, who wants to take that on? You just can’t make money on these accounts.”
Several international banks have already been slapped silly with fines: Italy’s second-largest bank, Intesa Sanpaolo paid OFAC $3 million after completing transactions with Cuba, Sudan, and Iran that were denoted in US dollars. UBS, Credit Suisse, and Barclays were also stung with fines after “bad” transactions with Cuba (that were, literally, none of the United States’ business).
As Vivian Mannerud says, whose company Airline Brokers purchases tickets to and from Cuba, “it would be nice if a Cuban-American banker would step up to the plate and help the community with this.” This brings to mind something I heard often growing up: “Money talks, bulls–t walks.” Yes, it absolutely would be nice if any banker could step up.
Unfortunately, “stepping up” to help facilitate isn’t as easy as biting the bullet and acting on good faith. As Reuters put it, “onerous sanctions regulations and the labor-intensive mounds of small, individual consular receipts Cuba deposits” are what made M&T decide to phase out diplomatic accounts altogether.
Tightening regulations and sifting records more carefully could potentially catch a few would-be terrorists. But is this really worth it, when the sifter is a restrictive trap?
In no way am I trying to claim that terrorism isn’t a major international issue, nor that countries should open their arms to known terrorists and allow them to engage in activities on their land. But let’s think about this for a minute. Because the United States declared Cuba a threat more than 30 years ago — at the height of the Cold War — eager undergraduates and faculty have had a door slammed shut in their faces in the year 2014.
Philip Peters, Cuba expert and head of a relatively new Cuba Research Center, says that “Regardless of what got Cuba on the list in the the 1980s, there’s no recent evidence of Cuba’s being involved in any international terrorist activities.” While not looking the other way at the terrible plight of the Cuban people, even the State Department has admitted “no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or training to terrorist groups.”
Because OFAC and the State Department won’t release their vice-like grip, my friends, classmates, and professors have been denied what would have been a wonderfully enriching opportunity. What is it that LearnLiberty once said? “Liberty is personal.” There just has to be a better way.