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12/08/13 -  Daily News - Sudden suspension of U.S.-to-Cuba travel creates holiday heartbreak for Cuban-Americans 

Activists blame the sudden cancellation of Cuban-Americans'
bank accounts on the chilling effects of the U.S. embargo against Cuba

Isabel Alfonso wants to visit her aunt, pictured here in her Havana living
room, but may not be able to do so because of the suspension of all
consular activities.  Maria Isabel Alfonso of Queens wants to visit her
aunt Isabel, pictured here in her Havana living room, but may not be able
to do so because of the suspension of all consular activities.  Even those
who thought they had seen it all in the bizarre world of U.S.-Cuba
relations, were surprised last month by an unexpected and surreal new

On Nov. 26, just in time for Christmas, when hundreds of thousands of
Cuban-Americans go back to the island to spend the holidays, the Cuban
Interests Section in Washington announced the indefinite suspension of all
consular activities, except for emergency and humanitarian cases.

The reason? The bank that Cuba was using, M&T Bank in Baltimore, cancelled
their accounts and the Cubans have not been able to find a U.S. or
international bank willing to handle their financial transactions.

As a result, Cuban-Americans cannot renew passports or get the required
visas. The situation is bad for all the parties involved: the
Cuban-Americans now stuck in the U.S.; Cuba that will lose millions in
travel dollars, and the U.S. that is seeing Obama's "people-to-people"
policy in danger of unraveling.

"This doesn't make any sense. I was planning on visiting (my aunt) Tía
Isabel," said María Isabel Alfonso, a Cuban-born literature professor who
lives in Jackson Heights, Queens, pointing to a photo of a sweet-looking
lady sitting on a rocking chair. "I wanted to go after Christmas. Tía
Isabel hasn't met my son Julián, who was born 18 months ago, and I wanted
to take him with me and celebrate with friends and family. But now it seems
I won't be able to go."

Alfonso, 41, a member of CAFE (Cuban Americans for Engagement), a group
that promotes a rational U.S.-Cuba policy, teaches at St. Joseph's College
on Long Island. She has taken several trips to see her elderly aunt since
1995 - the year she moved to the U.S. Her predicament is shared by hundreds
of thousands of Cuban-Americans, 200,000 of whom live in the New York
metropolitan area. Last year, almost 400,000 visited their native country.

Havana put the blame for the strange situation squarely on the never-ending
U.S. embargo, and on sanctions resulting from its gratuitous inclusion on
the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, which carries heavy
regulations and huge fines.

"It is a risk no bank wants to take," Alfonso said. "Even mistakes can cost
them a lot of money."

A lot of money is right. In June, Italy's second-largest bank, Intesa San
Paolo, paid $3 million over U.S. dollar transactions involving Cuba, Iran
and Sudan. Last year, the Dutch bank ING Bank NV agreed to pay $619
million, the biggest fine ever against a bank for sanctions violation.
Banks from Sweden and Great Britain have also paid out hundreds of millions
more in fines involving Cuba transactions.

If anything, this quandary makes even more blatant the contradictions of
U.S. policy toward Cuba.

Even though Obama said last month, "We have to update our policies. Keep in
mind that when Castro came to power, I was just born," his decision to
allow unlimited visits by Cuban-Americans and to expand purposeful travel
in order to promote change in the island is being sabotaged by his own
anachronistic embargo policy. Talk about absurdity.

To make the whole episode even stranger, stopping diplomatic missions from
having access to routine banking services is a violation of the Vienna
Convention. This has forced the Obama administration to work with Cuba to
find another bank, a rare instance of colaboration - unsuccessful so far -
between the two neighbors.

Such fleeting cooperation, even if it ends up being successful, is not

"Cuba should be removed from the list of terrorist countries," Alfonso
said. "It is time to lift the embargo, end all travel restrictions and
normalize relations."

The sooner the better.


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