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US trade with Cuba grows

U.S. trade with Cuba grows
Canadian and foreign companies in Caribbean nation cry foul and accuse
Washington of playing `very unfair games’
Jun. 12, 2006. 06:26 AM
OAKLAND ROSS
FEATURE WRITER

HAVANA—Canadian businesspeople in Cuba are steaming mad about what they
say are unfair U.S. trade practices, as American exporters steadily
increase their market share in a country Washington officially regards
as an enemy state.

“This is a serious, serious problem,” said Sam Raina, president of the
52-member Canadian Business Club, an association of Canadian companies
operating in the Caribbean country. “The Americans are playing very
unfair games.”

Raina says pressure from the U.S. Treasury Department recently caused
his Canadian banker — HSBC Bank Canada — to close his corporate and
personal accounts and to cancel his credit cards, because he lives and
does business in Cuba. He says he is not alone.

“There’s no bank in the world that would defy the U.S. Treasury,” he
said during a recent interview at his office in western Havana, less
than a block from the shiny, mirror-like façade of the Karl Marx
Theatre. “This has all of a sudden become an issue because U.S. trade
with Cuba is getting higher and higher and stronger and stronger. This
is the story.”

Raina is the Cuba-based representative of First Caribe Trading Corp., an
export agent.

What angers him and other Canadian businesspeople in Cuba is not only
that U.S. trade sanctions are being imposed upon them but that the same
measures are waived for American firms that now do business with Cuba.

The United States broke formal diplomatic ties with Cuba more than 40
years ago and has maintained a trade embargo against the Communist-ruled
country since 1963.

But, after Hurricane Michelle ravaged the island in November 2001,
Washington okayed the sale of food and medical supplies to Cuba, albeit
on a cash-only basis. Since then, the United States has gone from
nowhere on the list of Cuba’s major trading partners to a position
somewhere in the top 10.

Molly Millerwise, a spokesperson for the U.S. Treasury Department,
confirmed that banking and transport restrictions that Washington seeks
to impose upon foreign firms doing business with Cuba are suspended for
American companies that export their products to the island.

“It’s okay for Americans to get Cuba transactions,” said Mario Simonato,
Havana-based director of King City Equipment Inc., of King City, Ont.

“It’s okay for them to do this. Meanwhile, they’re putting pressure on
Canadian companies and European companies. It’s blatantly unfair.”

It’s also just a tad complicated, as Washington seems to be tightening
up its restrictions on Cuban trade in some areas while loosening them in
others. The reasons are both political and economic, but the
consequences so far chiefly benefit American businesspeople while
penalizing their foreign competitors.

Recently, the fear of running afoul of U.S. economic sanctions against
Cuba has caused some foreign banks to review their policies toward doing
business with the island. Canadian businesspeople in Cuba say it’s no
coincidence that this is happening just as U.S. exports to Cuba are on
the rise.

“It’s by design,” said Simonato. “The Americans think they own the world.”

According to Josefina Vidal, the Cuban foreign ministry’s assistant
director for North American affairs, Canada is currently the island’s
second-largest foreign investor when measured by number of joint
ventures — Spain is number one — and the largest when measured by volume
of capital. Canada is also the island’s fourth-largest trading partner
and its single largest source of tourists.

Canadian businesspeople in Cuba give high marks to the Canadian embassy
here, but they have harsh words for the Department of Foreign Affairs
and International Trade in Ottawa, which they say has not defended
Canadian interests on the island and has even hampered their ability to
run their businesses, by kowtowing to American pressure.

Sharon Wilkes, a spokesperson for HSBC Bank Canada, confirmed in an
interview that the bank has recently restricted its dealings with Cuba
and several other countries in order to bring itself into compliance
with U.S. Treasury Department sanctions against what Washington labels
as terrorist or rogue regimes.

“It’s a fairly recent change,” she said of the bank’s new wariness about
doing business even at second-hand with Cuba. She could not say what
triggered the new policy.

`There are some services
we are not able to provide
to residents of Cuba’
Sharon Wilkes, spokesperson
for HSBC Canada

Citing confidentiality rules, Wilkes would not comment specifically on
Raina’s complaint that HSBC Bank Canada closed his accounts and
cancelled his credit cards, but she confirmed that such steps could have
been taken.

“There are some services we are not able to provide to residents of
Cuba,” she said.

Two other Canadian businesspeople in Cuba who were interviewed recently
by the Toronto Star declined to identify either their Canadian employers
or their Canadian bankers for fear of meeting the same misfortune that
has befallen Raina.

Simonato said his Canadian bank is the Toronto Dominion Bank and that he
has so far encountered no problems — “touch wood.”

By far the largest Canadian investor in Cuba is Sherritt Industries of
Toronto, which has large interests in Cuban nickel and cobalt mining as
well as oil and gas projects and other enterprises. It says it is doing
business as usual.

“Sherritt has not encountered any particular problem with the banking
institutions that it deals with,” company spokesperson Michael Minnes
wrote in an email to the Star. “Sherritt has been investing and doing
business in Cuba for over 10 years, and we continue to grow our
businesses there.”

In a telephone interview, Millerwise at the U.S. Treasury Department
denied that her agency has recently stepped up pressure on foreign banks
or other companies to cut back on business with Cuba, despite at least
some evidence to the contrary.

In February, for example, a four-star Sheraton Hotel in Mexico City
ejected the members of a Cuban trade delegation who were staying there,
after the hotel’s U.S. parent company received a warning letter from the
U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

The decision set off a firestorm of protest in Mexico.

Speaking privately, a U.S. government official confirmed to the Star
that foreign banks and other businesses do risk being cut out of the
U.S. financial sector if they flout American financial sanctions against
Cuba or other countries.

Two years ago, UBS, a Swiss bank, paid a $100 million (U.S.) fine to the
Federal Reserve after conducting U.S. banknote transactions with several
prohibited states, including Cuba.

This year, a branch of the Bank of Nova Scotia in King
ston, Jamaica,
informed one of its clients — the Cuban embassy in Jamaica — that it
would no longer conduct U.S.-dollar transactions on the embassy’s
accounts. Scotiabank cited Washington’s anti-terrorist Patriot Act as
the reason for its decision. Drafted in the wake of the Sept.11 attacks,
the law seeks to bolster American defences against terrorism on a range
of fronts.

It contains only one passing reference to Cuba.

In response to the Scotiabank decision, the Cuban embassy in Jamaica
cancelled all its dealings with the Canadian bank.

In addition to imposing restrictions on Cuban access to U.S. currency,
Washington maintains a variety of other economic sanctions against the
island.

The United States denies the use of its territory to companies wishing
to transport goods to or from Cuba — a policy that mainly penalizes
Canadians — and also refuses docking privileges at U.S. ports to
commercial vessels that have visited the Caribbean island during the
previous six months.

Like the banking restrictions, these measures are not applied in the
case of U.S. exporters shipping their goods to Cuba.

In 2004, Iberia, a Spanish airline, was obliged to pay a fine to U.S.
authorities after transporting Cuban goods through the United States.

“From time to time, we have problems,” said a European diplomat in
Havana. “We are concerned about it.”

http://www.thestar.com/NASApp/cs/ContentServer?pagename=thestar/Layout/Article_Type1&c=Article&cid=1150064106570&call_pageid=968350072197&col=969048863851

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