Cuba suspends consular services in United States

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- One day after Cuba suspended most consular services in the United States, some Cuban Americans in South Florida questioned the truthfulness of the reason given by the Cuban government for the suspension of services.

In a statement, the Cuban Interests Section said the Buffalo, New York-based M&T Bank had stopped providing services to foreign missions, including Cuba -- and, blamed the decades-old economic embargo.

"Due to the restrictions still in force, derived from the U.S. policy of economic, commercial and financial blockade against Cuba, and despite the numerous efforts made with the Department of State and several banks, it has been impossible for the Cuban Interests Section to find a U.S. or international bank with branches in the U.S. to operate the bank accounts of the Cuban diplomatic missions," the Cuban Interests Section said.

In West Palm Beach, some Cuban Americans cast doubt on the statement and wondered if the announcement would fuel the years-old rumor that former Cuban president Fidel Castro had died.

"Anything that has to do with politics, there is more to it than we as the people ever know," Juan Labrador, a West Palm Beach resident said. "You know that there is something deeper hidden behind all of this that we, ourselves, don't really know what's going on."

Washington and Havana broke diplomatic relations at the height of Cold War tensions.

Since 1977, the two countries have maintained "interests sections" rather than embassies in each other's capitals, with both facilities formally under the legal protection of Switzerland.

Cuba said that until further notice, consular services such as passport and visa processing will be cut at both of its outposts in the U.S. except in "humanitarian" and other unspecified cases.

Havana argued that under international conventions, the U.S. State Department is legally bound to provide the conditions for diplomatic missions to function.

On Wednesday, the State Department said it was actively working with Cuba to find a new financial institution to handle its diplomatic accounts in the United States, The Associated Press reported.

In an emailed communique, the State Department said that the U.S. bank that had handled Cuba's accounts severed the relationship due to a "business decision," and that the government does not have the power to interfere or order any bank to handle a foreign mission's account.

It added that Cuba's situation was not unique.

"The U.S. government seeks to help foreign missions in the United States that have trouble obtaining banking services while ensuring the continued security of the U.S. financial system including through appropriate regulatory oversight," the State Department said.

"We would like to see the Cuban missions return to full operations."

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