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Western Union to end remittances business to Cuba

People stand outside a Western Union in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana, Cuba, on June 12, 2020.

ISMAEL FRANCISCO/AP

By MARIO J. PENTÓN | The Miami Herald | Published: November 14, 2020

(Tribune News Service) — Western Union announced on Friday it will end its operations in Cuba as of Nov. 27, following the Cuban government's refusal to transfer remittance operations to a company not controlled by the military, as required by the Trump Administration.

The United States announced at the end of September that it would impose sanctions on American companies that do business with Cuban military entities, a measure that directly impacts Fincimex, a subsidiary of GAESA, the Cuban military conglomerate that controls, among other things, the remittances business.

"Today we inform our clients that they have a time limit to send money to their loved ones from the United States to Cuba, due to a new rule of the United States government that will take effect on November 26, 2020," a Western Union spokeswoman told el Nuevo Herald.

The deadline for sending remittances to the island will be Nov. 22 at 11:00 p.m. To pick up remittances on the island, the last possible day will be Nov. 23 at 6:00 p.m. All 400 Western Union stores on the island will close then, the spokeswoman said.

"For more than 20 years, Western Union has been sending money to Cuba from our clients to their families and loved ones to cover their expenses for food, rent and others, including micro-businesses. We deeply regret this situation and its impact on our clients," the company said.

Western Union had asked Cubans in exile to speed up the sending of remittances to the island because "time is running out."

The pressure against Fincimex, the Cuban counterpart of Western Union, is part of a strategy of the government of President Donald Trump, whose administration has ratcheted up sanctions against Cuba, a country it accuses of supporting the Nicolás Maduro regime in Venezuela.

The Trump administration has canceled cruise travel, restricted remittances to $1,000 per quarter, reduced the airports to which Americsns can travel from the United States, and promoted a broad international campaign to denounce human rights abuses committed by the Cuban government.

Trump also activated Title III and IV of the Helms-Burton Act to allow Cuban Americans and to file lawsuits in U.S. courts for compensation for assets expropriated by the Fidel Castro government in the early 1960s.

Emilio Morales, director of the Havana Consulting Group who has studied the phenomenon of remittances to Cuba, said that he estimates that since 1993 Cuba has received a total of $46.8 billion in remittances, of which $18,871 passed through the hands of the Cuban military.

"Nobody knows where those $18,871 million went and what they are used for, due to the lack of transparency in the network of companies dependent on the state in Cuba," Morales told el Nuevo Herald.

"The sanctions have been directed at the Cuban military, not at harming the Cuban people. The military, by not giving in to the demands of the United States, have shown that they are not interested in the good of the people, but in their own interests," he added.

Remittance shipments to Cuba may continue to be made through agencies such as VaCuba and Cubamax. Some of these companies allow remittances to be sent in dollars, in high demand among families given the growing dollarization of the Cuban economy.

Reactions to the closure of Western Union on the island have been mixed. Some Cuban exiles have regretted the measures because they make it difficult for them to help their relatives on the island.

"Who thinks that the military is going to leave a business that makes them millions? Those who end up harmed the most are the relatives of one who do not even have what to eat and now it will be more expensive and more difficult to send them money, "said Yania Rivas, who lives in Hialeah.

Santiago González, a Cuban exile who left the island 30 years ago, supports the measure. "The less money the communists have, the less resources they will have to repress the people. They will have to negotiate because the crisis is just around the corner, "he said.

President-elect Joe Biden has said he would reverse the limits on remittances imposed by Trump.

"My plan is to promote interest and empower the Cuban people to freely determine their own future," he said in an interview prior to the elections.

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