Sunday Herald, Scotland
Joanna Blythman on US interference
IT SEEMS that our banks are doing the United States’s dirty work these days. Lloyds TSB and Barclays have been telling British customers who have financial dealings with Cuba to take their business elsewhere. Why? Because they’re scared. Not of the British government - which nominally encourages trade with Cuba and has a policy of positive engagement with the island - but of the US.
Blinded by rabid anti-socialist, anti-Castro sentiment, for 48 years the US has conducted a vendetta against this peaceful Caribbean island by imposing a crippling economic blockade, one that has wilfully impoverished the Cuban people and been roundly condemned for 16 years running by the UN General Assembly. In 2007, 184 countries, including the UK, voted against it - only four didn’t. The whole world, apart from the US, its thuggish sidekick, Israel, and a couple of obscure statelets, believes this punitive blockade should be lifted.
Cuba appears on America’s blacklist of state sponsors of terrorism, along with pariah states such as Sudan and North Korea. US legislation has long criminalised any company doing business with Cuba, and it is enforced with McCarthyite zeal - American business people have been fined and imprisoned. Even a director’s fact-finding visit to the island could land a US company in trouble.
Unable to carry its anti-Cuba argument abroad, the US uses its economic muscle to get what it wants outwith its own borders. Thus any transnational company or its subsidiary with a presence in the US - even if not based there - can face swingeing penalties. Swiss banking giant, UBS, for instance, has had to pay the Federal Reserve a fine of $100 million for dealing with Havana.
Putting the frighteners on the international banking sector works. Not only are Lloyds TSB and Barclays running scared, so too, according to the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, are HSBC and the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS).
I asked the latter to clarify whether or not it was operating an embargo and got the following opaque response: “The group complies with all applicable sanctions regimes in the jurisdictions in which it operates. While we are aware of the various arguments surrounding the Cuban embargo, this is a matter which should rightfully be addressed by government through the appropriate diplomatic channels.” (I asked Bank of Scotland too. I haven’t heard a word back.) Never expect bankers to man the barricades on any issue unless it affects their bottom line.
Yet RBS does have a point. Why isn’t the UK government protecting the right of British companies to do business with Cuba? Which state has sovereignty over banking here, the UK or the US? Westminster has two weapons at its disposal: an EU blocking statute and the Protection of Trading Interests Act, both enacted in 1996 explicitly to prevent any discrimination against British companies that legitimately trade with Cuba. But neither Tony Blair nor Gordon Brown has used them.
The Mexican government fined a Sheraton Hotel in Mexico City for expelling Cuban guests, and the Austrian government has launched administrative procedures against an Austrian bank that cancelled the accounts of Cuban citizens (ironically, mainly Castro-loathing exiles) after being taken over by US investors. Austria’s foreign minister, Ursula Plassnik, took the view that the bank had violated EU rules against implementing US Cuban sanctions on European soil. “We are not the 51st state of the United States” she said. Perhaps the UK is.
Despite his initial aloofness, Gordon Brown has turned into George Bush’s replacement poodle for Blair. So currently, if you want to import Cuban cigars, sugar or rum to the UK, your bank account is too hot to handle. Only the good old ethically-minded Co-Operative Bank still seems to welcome such business.
This is bad news for Cuba’s economy, and ours. Potentially Cuba is a big market for the UK, yet our exports to the island went down by 40% between 2001 and 2006. I wonder why ?
How long before the US’s malign blockade hampers the ability of UK citizens to visit Cuba? British tourists already find that their credit cards - which have yielded funds in out-of-the-way countries all around the globe - mysteriously don’t work there. That’s because many credit card companies are subsidiaries of US banks. For the time being, Virgin flies tourists in and out of the island - Richard Branson’s bank account must be hard to turn down. But unless Gordon Brown defends British companies against a foreign government that is trying to obstruct their legal business, then British tour companies currently active in Cuba may run into banking difficulties.
If, like me, you think that the world should be free to trade with Cuba and disapprove of America’s unhealthy grip on our financial institutions, you could ask your bank to confirm that it is happy to offer banking services to Cuban organisations, companies trading with Cuba, and of course, Cuban individuals.
The Cuba Solidarity Campaign has a model letter you can use or adapt for the purpose at: http://www.cuba-solidarity.org.uk/news.asp?ItemID=1356
In the absence of a satisfactory response, consider taking your account elsewhere. If certain banks won’t do business with Cuba, then why should we do business with them?