TAMPA — On Monday, Cuba's bank in the United States is scheduled to stop accepting the country's deposits. At that point, any travel between the two nations — made easier with action by the Obama administration — will face roadblocks once again.
A short term fix back in November extended banking services, which are necessary for the issue of travel visas. But this new deadline has reignited a call for more lasting progress toward an even broader goal — helping normalize relations between the two countries by pulling Cuba from the U.S. list of nations sponsoring terrorism.
This designation — which Cuba shares with Syria, Iran and the Sudan — helps explain why Buffalo-based M&T Bank will phase out all banking services to the island nation by March 1. It also prevents any employee of Florida's government, including university researchers, from using state money for travel to Cuba.
“It's hard when it comes to Cuban policies to be optimistic,” said Florida Rep. Kathy Castor, the Tampa Democrat, who favors removing Cuba from the terrorism-sponsors list. “But so much is at stake for the families of our area.”
According to Tampa International Airport officials, the Tampa area has the third largest Cuban American population in the country and in 2012 accounted for 44,711 of the half-million people traveling between the U.S. and Cuba. Airport officials project that number rose in 2013 to 51,594.
If the Cuban Interests Section is unable to conduct business and shuts down, only humanitarian trips to Cuba will be allowed. Travel agents specializing in trips to Cuba have said they can try to work around the problem, perhaps arranging for visas to be delivered once travelers land in Cuba.
Still, the U.S. is struggling to help keep Cuba in business here.
“We have reached out to more than 50 banks and understand that several are currently exploring whether to provide the Cuban missions with banking services,” the State Department told the Tampa Tribune in an e-mail email. “We do not know if the Cuban missions will have a new bank by March 1.”
❖ ❖ ❖
Still, many observers say, any bank will find it onerous to do business with Cuba as long as it remains on the list.
“It's a bureaucratic nightmare,” said Antonio Martinez II, a New York attorney who deals with Cuban sanctions compliance. “If Cuba comes off the terrorist list, it is going to be easier for banking transactions to occur.”
To keep terrorist money from entering the U.S. through financial institutions, as it did with the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the federal government requires banks to adhere to a long list of screenings, record-keeping and reporting requirements when dealing with nations on the terrorist list.
“It's a hassle for the banks,” said Castor. “Banks would prefer to not do that extra work.”
Even if a bank makes an honest mistake and doesn't report something, it faces stiff fines.
“It's a risk,” added Castor.
M&T Bank has yet to explain why it has decided against continuing to service Cuba's U.S. bank account. Last year, it reached an agreement with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to strengthen its anti-money laundering and Bank Secrecy Act compliance program.
Some question why Cuba, after more than three decades, is still classified as a sponsor of terrorism.
“Cuba absolutely does not belong on that list,” said Al Fox, who has worked from Tampa to encourage normalization of relations with Cuba through his Alliance For Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation. “They do not support terrorism in any way.”
The advisory board of Fox's Alliance includes Tampa banker and Performing Arts Center namesake David Straz, former Massachusetts U.S. Rep. Bill Delahunt and former Connecticut Congressman Bruce Morrison.
“Even the State Department seems to agree,” Fox added.
❖ ❖ ❖
The terrorism-sponsor designation requires a determination by the secretary of state that a nation has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism.
The U.S. imposed a travel and trade embargo against Cuba after Fidel Castro came to power and embraced Communism. With some exceptions, the embargo remains in place.
The U.S. placed Cuba on the terrorism sponsor list in 1982 for its support of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish acronym FARC. A Communist militia linked to the Colombian drug trade, FARC has been at war with the government since the 1960s.
Providing safe haven for the Spanish terrorism group Basque Fatherland and Liberty, known by its Spanish acronym ETA, also has been cited in keeping Cuba on the list.
More recent assessments of Cuba's relations with terrorist groups raise questions about its place on the list.
According to the State Department's 2010 Terrorism Overview, Cuba was providing Spain's law enforcement access to the island to investigate the ETA. And the 2012 Terrorism Overview reported that Cuba was distancing itself from the ETA, no longer providing services such as travel documents; was hosting peace talks between FARC and the Colombian government; and was actively fighting terrorist financing through its banks.
The 2012 overview also said that there was no “indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups.”
“Is it confusing? Of course it is,” said Tampa's Fox. “It makes absolutely no sense.”
❖ ❖ ❖
The State Department does say that one reason Cuba remains on the list is that it shelters fugitives from U.S. justice, a finding questioned by Robert Muse, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney who specializes in legal issues brought on by the Cuban embargo.
Some of the crimes these estimated 70 fugitives committed are indeed “deplorable and reprehensible,” Muse said, such the killing of a police officer by Black Panther JoAnne Chesimard.
But he calls it “invalid as a matter of law” to classify their crimes as terrorism.
In addition, those opposed to normalizing relations with the Castro regime point to the seizure seven months ago at the Panama Canal of Soviet-era weapons and fighter jets hidden under sacks of sugar on board a Cuban vessel destined for North Korea.
It is perhaps because of this, said Republican U.S. Rep. Ileana Rep. Ros-Lehtinen of Miami, that “American banks have refused to do business with the regime, a U.S.-designated Sponsor of Terrorism ...”
The United Nations bans countries from providing arms to North Korea. North Korea has claimed it was going to refurbish the arms for Cuba.
It doesn't matter either way, Fox said, because North Korea was removed from the list of terrorism sponsors in 2008 by President George Bush. UN violations do not equal terrorism.
“If North Korea is using these weapons for terrorism, why aren't they back on the terrorist list?” he asked.
❖ ❖ ❖
Martinez, the New York attorney, said Cuba remains on the list because of pressure by a few anti-Castro politicians.
The momentum, he said, has swung in the direction of improving relations and finally lifting the embargo.
Some recent examples include an agreement involving the U.S. and Cuba to work together on oil spill cleanup and changes of heart by elected officials including Rep. Castor.
What's more, former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, running for the office again in 2014, recently spoke out against the embargo, former Florida Gov. and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham visited the island nation and Florida sugar baron Alfonso Fanjul, a contributor to pro-embargo organizations and political candidates, now says he is open to doing business in Cuba.
A recent poll by the nonpartisan Atlantic Council says 56 percent of the U.S. and 60 percent of Florida supports normalizing relations with Cuba. Those working to lift the embargo were most pleased that the poll showed support for their cause among Cuban-Americans — 73 percent across the country, 79 percent in Florida and 64 percent in Miami-Dade County, a center of anti-Castro sentiment.
The banking problems of the Cuban interests section offer an opportunity to seize on this momentum, Martinez said.
“This is a key moment,” he said. “Those in favor of normalizing relations with Cuba have never organized their votes or money. Maybe now they will.”
Fox said he's seen opportunities fall apart before but is hoping for the best this time.
“This is a game of chicken and I don't want the federal government to blink this time,” he said. “Take Cuba off that list. Now.”