By Igo More in Madrid
The US has imposed a fine on Iberia, the Spanish airline, for breaking its embargo on Cuba, the Financial Times’ Spanish sister paper Expansion has learned.
According to the US Treasury, Iberia - in which the Spanish government has a 5.35 per cent stake - was guilty of the “transportation and importations of Cuban goods to the United States”.
The fine, which was imposed in June but only emerged on Wednesday night, threatens further to undermine relations between Washington and Madrid, which are already at a low ebb after the new Spanish government’s removal of its troops from Iraq.
The penalty was imposed on Iberia Airways, the US subsidiary of Iberia. In a settlement with the Treasury Iberia has paid the fine but without making any admission of wrongdoing. The level of payment was not disclosed, but people close to the settlement said it was very low, in the range of thousands of dollars.
They added that the penalty was more of a warning and would not cause any financial problems for Iberia.
The fine relates to an event in 2000. People within Iberia said the airline was transporting goods between Spain’s Canary Islands and central America trough its US regional hub in Miami. The goods were seized by customs officials at Miami.
Iberia declined to say whether the goods were of Cuban origin.
The airline has daily flights between between Madrid and Havana, but no direct flight between the US and Cuba.
It is the first time a Spanish company has faced sanctions under the Cuban embargo laws, although Spanish citizens have been charged with breaking it.
It remains unclear why the US Treasury waited four years to impose a penalty. Earlier this year the hardline government of Jose Mar"a Aznar was replaced by the socialist government of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.
The change brought a deterioration in relations between Madrid and Washington which are now likely to be under more stress. Spain is the largest foreign investor on a number of joint ventures with the Cuban authorities, and the second after Canada in money invested.
Mr Aznar’s government never supported the US embargo on Cuba but he was the first Spanish primer minister to criticise the human rights record of the Castro regime. After his strong criticisms, the Spanish ambassador in Havana was expelled.
The US fine on Iberia was imposed in June. A month later Iberia announced its withdrawal from its Miami regional hub, citing security and visa problems.
Connection times for passengers travelling from Spain to destinations in central America through the Miami hub have more than doubled in many cases, as a result of the onerous transit procedures imposed by the US immigration authorities.
Iberia, the market leader on routes between Europe and Latin America, said it would restructure the operations to central America with effect from the beginning of next month.
The US Treasury has imposed penalties on 60 companies this year for breaking the Cuban embargo law. British Airways is one of the largest shareholders of Iberia, with a 9 per cent stake.