US restrictions being felt in distant Timaru?
Acouple of weeks ago I received an unexpected phone call from our bank manager. I immediately began to wonder what could be behind such a relatively high-level call: had we mysteriously suddenly become massively overdrawn on our cheque account? Was our credit card being ransacked by unscrupulous overseas hackers?
No, we were being asked to sign a letter pledging we would never again send money to Cuba.
Let me explain. We are not a charity with a special affinity for impoverished people in Cuba and sending them much-needed funds, although we do sympathise with them for the plight caused by a cruel trade embargo that has been imposed by the United States over the past half-century.
No, as some of you may be aware, my wife takes tour groups overseas and about a year ago, Jill took a group of New Zealanders to Cuba.
As she was using a private local guide and using some of the family bed and breakfast establishments that have flourished since President Raul Castro relaxed the Communist government’s controls on the economy, Jill needed to send funds to Cuba to pay for these bookings and other tour costs, such as eating at private restaurants.
This we did without any problem, using our business credit card and a Swiss money transfer company. We didn’t attempt to disguise the transaction. Why should we?
But, nearly a year later, Westpac appears to have decided we are cunningly transgressing some international trade sanctions imposed on the poverty-stricken Caribbean island.
Jill has, quite reasonably in my opinion, refused to sign the letter without more information as to why she is being asked to forego the right to send money to conduct business with a popular holiday destination.
She has been told the reasons for the draconian imposition are’’ drugs and terrorism’’.
Okay, let’s start with drugs. According to the United States’ National Institute on Drug Abuse in 2013 – the most recent year for survey results – 24.6 million Americans had used an illicit drug in the past month.
Apart from showing the magnitude of the US drug problem and perhaps explaining why Donald Trump was elected president, the report shows that if Cuba IS a supplier of drugs to the US, it’s a miniscule player compared with Bolivia, Colombia and Peru, which supply the bulk of the cocaine used in the US. Twothirds of the marijuana consumed in the United States comes from Mexico. On websites citing the origin of America’s drug problem, Cuba doesn’t rate a mention.
As for terrorism, what exactly is Cuba guilty of, apart from having the gall in 1959 to remove from power the corrupt US-backed dictator Fulgencia Batista, and closing the casinos, brothels and drug outlets that, with his connivance, were being run by the American Mafia?
The US reacted in typical heavy-handed fashion, blocking nearly all trade between America and Cuba and freezing Cuban assets in the US. Three years later President Kennedy imposed a complete trade embargo and set restrictions on travel and trade. According to Cuban government estimates, these actions have cost the nation about $US1.126 trillion over the ensuing five decades.
In 1996, nearly 40 years after the Cuban revolution, further restrictions were added to the island’s trade embargo and foreign enterprises were penalised for doing business with Cuba.
The Helms-Burton Act implementing these changes stated they would only be lifted if the Castro brothers were removed from power.
In a humanitarian gesture, President Bill Clinton’s administration in 1998 eased the control of shipments of food and medicine to Cuba. This was followed nine years later by further relaxations initiated by President Barack Obama, and in 2014 the two countries agreed to restore diplomatic relations.
The following year the US removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. Ironic, given the CIA’s much-publicised efforts to assassinate Fidel Castro!
In March 2016, President Obama became the first incumbent of the White House to visit Cuba in 88 years, which inevitably meant Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, just had to wind back the progress being made by his predecessor.
Last November, for no apparent reason other than the persistent undoing of Obama’s legacy, the Donald introduced new restrictions on trade and travel - saying ‘‘we will not be silent in the face of Communist oppression in Cuba’’.
The Communist ‘‘oppression’’ by the way has included enshrining free education and free healthcare in the Cuban Constitution. So, while Americans are engaged in bitter arguments about the merits of the Second Amendment to their constitution, Cubans are enjoying free healthcare their neighbours can only dream about.
However, it would seem Trump’s new restrictions have finally filtered down to my wife’s small business in Timaru. And, apparently, if we don’t sign the agreement the bank will close our accounts, even though US government officials said when introducing the latest curbs that ‘‘the widespread practice of renting rooms and eating meals in private homes in Cuba would continue to be allowed’’.
I’ll keep you posted on how our tilt against one of New Zealand’s biggest banks and, indirectly, the most powerful nation on earth, unfolds.