April 13, 2007
By GEORGE JAHN Associated Press Writer
VIENNA, Austria — An Austrian bank recently bought by a U.S.-led consortium acknowledged Friday it told a Cuban-born client to take her business elsewhere and suggested that Washington’s ban on commerce with Cuba was behind the decision.
A resident of good standing in her Austrian village, Maria Cajigal-Ramirez said that until the ruling, she believed she was thoroughly integrated into her new life after turning her back on Fidel Castro’s Cuba and acquiring Austrian citizenship.
Although she has lived in Austria since 1978 and has been a citizen for seven years, she still holds her old passport, a document she says she does not want but cannot return because Cuban authorities refuse to revoke her old citizenship. And U.S. law prohibits not only American businesses but also their subsidiaries abroad to conduct any commerce with Cuban nationals.
The bank, BAWAG-P.S.K., was bought in December by a consortium headed by New York-based Cerberus Capital Management. The bank, linked to questionable loans to the collapsed U.S. commodities broker Refco, was sold by its previous owner, the Austrian Trade Union Federation, in its efforts to distance itself from the financial scandal.
The move brought stability to BAWAG and was hailed by most customers of the bank, Austria’s fourth-largest. But for Cajigal-Ramirez and about 100 other Cuban residents of Austria, it has resulted in a jarring reminder that they are different.
“I feel anguish and disappointment,” she said Friday by phone from her home in Frankenmarkt, a village of 4,000 people about 20 miles northeast of Salzburg. “I think I am a victim of discrimination.”
Government and opposition politicians criticized the bank’s decision.
Erwin Buchinger, the minister of social and consumer affairs, said he was “outraged by the behavior of BAWAG toward Cuban clients.” He said he agreed with Cajigal-Ramirez that the move was discriminatory, adding it could be illegal. The opposition Green party called the bank’s decision “appalling.”
In an e-mailed statement, the bank said U.S. sanctions prohibit “U.S. companies or consortiums to maintain business contacts with Cuba, Cuban companies or individuals of Cuban nationality, wherever these may be located or be domiciled.”
“This prohibition extends also to non-U.S. ... companies that are owned or controlled by U.S. individuals or U.S. companies.”
In comments to the Austria Press Agency, BAWAG spokesman Thomas Heinhofer described the decision as a mistake, saying the bank did not know that Cajigal-Ramirez had Austrian citizenship.
A U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said “about 100 dual nationals were affected,” adding that those who retained Cuban citizenship even while acquiring a new one were still subject to The Cuban Assets Control Regulations prohibiting U.S. citizens and corporations from doing business with Cuba or Cuban nationals.
Asked for comment, U.S. Embassy spokesman William H. Wanlund said: “A foreign subsidy of a U.S. corporation is considered a U.S. corporation for the purposes of the law.”
Cajigal-Ramirez, who left Cuba on a tourist visa nine years ago and never returned, said news that she was no longer welcome at the bank came by letter Tuesday, informing her that all her accounts at her hometown branch would be closed.
“We first laughed,” she said, recalling telling her husband that bank authorities were probably worried about the connotations of her birthplace — Guantanamo Bay, site of the high-security U.S. military prison for terror suspects.
But she said that after being told by an employee at her local branch that the bank did not want to do business with those “originating from Cuba,” her mood turned to anger.
“I have been a customer at BAWAG for the last the nine years,” said Cajigal-Ramirez, 35. “This is a question of violating my human rights.”
And the US Government wonders why much of the rest of the world hates the US and applaudes Cuba for standing up to bullying, overbearing and illegal acts?