Unionpay in Cuba: China Steps on the Toes of the US Embargo

This article is dedicated to those who underestimate the repercussions of the US embargo on the lives of common Cubans.

Unionpay, is a direct bridge between the Chinese Yuan and the Cuban CUC.

By Isidro Estrada

HAVANA TIMES — In May 2013, the Chinese bank conglomerate Unionpay, today made up of 20 different banks in China, began to offer its services in Cuba, making the Caribbean country one of the more than 142 nations around the world where the institutions’ cards are accepted and used. Cuba is the 14th (and most recent) country in the Americas to establish these financial services.

Cuba’s inclusion is, in good measure, the result of requests made by the more than three thousand Chinese citizens who study or work on the island today and who require a reliable and permanent mechanism for receiving family remittances.

“Bu yao f?ngsu?”. En the blockade in Chinese.

Having automatic tellers and exchange locales that accept Unionpay cards also has a collateral benefit for the small Cuban community in the Asian country which, owing to recent provisions stemming from the United States’ Cuba embargo/blockade, has been unable to conduct transactions at different Chinese banks over the past few months.

With cards bearing the Unionpay logo, it is now possible to exchange sums in Yuan (or Renminbi) accounts at Chinese banks into Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC).

I have some personal experiences (and the experiences of other Cubans living in China) to share about this.

My Graduation as a Terrorist

It was a spring afternoon in Peking and my landline was ringing with the same insistence with which the season was trying to oust the winter.

“It’s for you, from the Everbright Bank. They want you to go to the bank as soon as possible so they can give you back the remittance you sent to Cuba. It was intercepted half-way. They’re not authorized to send it,” my wife told me with her habitual, Chinese serenity and her neutral Spanish accent.

My fears became a reality: I had been marginalized thanks to a Cold War relic. Three months before, a local Western Union employee had alerted me to this situation when, with all of the kindness in the world, he had surprised my ears with the phrase:

Automatic cashier in Havana with the Unionpay logo.

“We’re very sorry, sir. But, since you have a Cuban passport, we’re not authorized to offer you our services. We have instructions from the US Treasury Department, which forbids us, as the branch of a US company, from processing your remittance.”

The new incident, however, was beyond my comprehension. I had resorted to a fully Chinese bank and had sent cash in Euros, not US dollars, to my son in Cuba. But no, there’s no way around it. I can’t help but conclude that, when the US Treasury has it out for someone, there’s nothing anyone can do – not even a Chinese healer.

Faced with this situation, my one option at this point is finding a Good Samaritan who will do me the favor of taking the money in person when they travel to Cuba – and all because the Obama administration has got the idea into its head that Cuba is a terrorist country and that, as a citizen holding a passport issued by that country, I am a potential terrorist.

That’s what all Cubans living in China have to deal with at the moment, and until further notice. It’s all the same whether that Cuban is a member of the Communist Party or a dissident – we’ve all been thrown into the same sack.

This is why the day in which I slid my Chinese Unionpay card for my Yuan account at a teller in Havana and saw the multi-colored CUCs issue from the slot was a day of joyous celebration and sweet revenge for me.

“I screwed you, US Treasury!” I thought.

Testimonies of Other Cubans Living in China, 2012

Osvaldo Perez: “Don’t waste time applying for a credit card in China. Cubans are on a secret black list for foreigners who are denied work visas – unless it’s via a government convention. They’re also denied credit cards in China.”

I know what I’m talking about, I speak from experience. I have a house, a brand new car, a work visa (don’t ask how I got it), a 22,000 RMB salary a month, and I was denied a credit card because of my nationality. What do you think? 

Graciela Fonseca: “I tried to open a Visa or MasterCard account and, everywhere I went, I was told I couldn’t, not even if I had the amount of money needed to do so. In some other places, like the Merchants’ Bank, I got such lousy service I wanted to cry. They checked a list in which Cubans appear as terrorists and didn’t allow me to apply for the card. I spent an entire day going from one bank to the next in Beijing, and, in every single one of them, I was told I couldn’t get a card after they saw my passport.”

Yani: “It’s true that Cuba is one of the countries that appears on the black list at the China Merchants Bank. That’s why they almost always deny us the possibility of opening an account at that bank. There is one way to do so via the Communications Bank. In my case, my husband has a Visa card issued by this bank. We asked for a second card, issued to my name. It’s the same account with two cards. I can use the card anywhere, it’s very convenient. Thanks to that, I can send money to my parents easily. The application isn’t complicated and it doesn’t take long. I know not all Cubans are married to Chinese citizens. I hope that those who aren’t find a solution soon.”

Nayib Hassan: “I know about the situation at the Merchants’ Bank very well. Unfortunately, Cuba has been on the list of countries that sponsor terrorism since 2005 thanks to Georg W. Bush (and Obama, who renewed the list in 2012). It is an unjust law that affects common Cubans alone.

Because of this, Cuba’s inclusion in the list, there’s nothing we can do. Obama ratified it: we’re in the same list as North Korea, Iran, Syria and Sudan – it’s shameful and truly unjust.

“Owing to this, Cubans can’t send remittances through any financial institution, because all of the world’s banks respond to the interests of the United States. Recently, in one of the most interventionist moves we’ve seen in the world, the Dutch company AIG was fined hundreds of millions of dollars for offering government and personal courier services to Cuba. It was a warning message. The only banks that sent remittances to Cuba were the ICBC and HSBC, but I think they’re no longer doing that.”

12 thoughts on “Unionpay in Cuba: China Steps on the Toes of the US Embargo

  • Those 1.5 billion low-wage soldiers in China are very much aware of their exploitation and are rising up against a system in China that is producing more billionaires every year. (So much for the socialists creed “to each according to need”)China will have to deal with their own internal problems long before their “huge economy” which is less than 30% of the US is a threat to US dominance. Capitalism must adjust to the changes that technology and globalization have introduced. The most agile multinationals will make the adjustment, others will not. If what you are suggesting is the US total dominance will end someday, I agree. Nothing is forever. But this won’t happen in our lifetime.

  • I do not agree with the bulk of US foreign policy, that includes most of the history of US policy on Cuba. The US should not have intervened in the Cuban War of Independence (which perversely became the Spanish-American War). Therefore I condemn the Platt Amendment and US support for the dictators Machado & Batista.

    Those errors in US policy lead directly to Castro, an even worse calamity for Cuba, in my opinion. Were it not for US intervention in Cuba, there would have been no Castro.

    That said, to point to the UN as an exemplar of global morality is an obscenity. This same UN just elected Cuba, Russia, Vietnam, Morocco, China and Saudi Arabia to their human rights commission: all of them with abominable records on human rights. That is all that needs to be said about the UN’s understanding of the concept of human rights.

  • John, not surprisingly, you are confusing two separate issues. Many of the countries who voted to end the US embargo were careful to be quoted as supporting the goal of democracy for Cuba but opposing the use of unilateral sanctions. “World opinion” opposes the embargo but equally hopes for a free Cuba. The 188 to 3 UN vote should not be confused as an endorsement of Castro’s dictatorship and totalitarianism. On this issue you are the one out of step.

  • Truman relieved General Mc Arthur of command in the Korean War because crazy McArthur wanted to engage the Chinese in a land war .
    True the U.S. could nuke China but who then would buy up U.S. debt ?
    The American Empire is going down but with a whimper and not a big bang . There is no military solution to the worldwide demise of capitalism .
    There is no solution at all.
    Its economy is steadily imploding as both globalization and automation kill off the workforce in a permanent manner.
    This is unavoidable as no competitive capitalist manufacturer can refuse to engage in the race to countries with low wage workers and now and much more rapidly in the future go to smart machines to replace most of the remaining workers by 2030 .
    No workers=no paychecks=no consumption and massive social disruption on a scale not seen before once the unemployment levels worldwide reach beyond the 30% levels expected by 2020.
    The Chinese as a military threat might have been a reasonable assumption some 40-50 years ago but today they are killing the U.S. with their huge economy and don’t really need much of a military to win this fight . They have 1.5 billion low wage “soldiers” in the economic wars between the major capitalist countries and they ARE kicking ass.

  • Re: the FARC and the Palestinians: one man’s terrorist is another man’s liberation fighter .
    Most of the world disagrees with the U.S. War On The People Of Cuba as witnessed by the votes at the U.N. in which only the U.S and the Marshall Islands and the criminal state of Israel voted against Cuba.
    You too are out of step with world opinion .
    To agree with the foreign policies of the U.S as you do is to be in step with a rogue state that disregards the opinion of all but a handful of the hundreds of countries on the planet.

  • If Cubans are blacklisted in Chinese banks, then it’s due to Chinese law, and not the US embargo.

  • Meanwhile, we Americans simply wire money to Cubans in Cuba via Western Union. They pick their money up within the hour at an Cuban bank.

  • Of course we US citizens can simply send money direct to Cuba via Western Union. It is available for Cubans to pick up at any bank within the hour.

  • As much as it seems to please you that a Chinese company would “break” the embargo, there is really nothing new being reported here. Offering banking services to a few thousand transient Chinese workers in Cuba is far from breaking anything. Likewise, that another handful of Cubans in China can send money home more easily is hardly the solution to the Cuban economic freefall. In fact, there are many such loopholes and escape valves in use already with the embargo. It is argued that if the embargo had been enforced effectively since it’s inception, the Castros would have left town a long time ago. As it is, because of US remittances, legal and illegal American tourism and widespread Medicare banking fraud, the US has maintained a lifeline to Castros. Finally, given the amount of Chinese wealth denominated in US debt or sequestered in US real estate, it is debatable as to who has the real stranglehold on whom. The Chinese military is no threat to the US, especially their naval and air forces. However, an estimated 20 million ground troops is a considerable force.

  • well john…the US and China do indeed have strong economic ties, which thankfully trump any military disagreements. However the US is still the larger and more stable economy. It is after all why the Chinese buy US debt…because it’s a safe investment. So I’m not sure what you mean by “strangle hold”. As far as the Chinese being too strong for the US to take on militarily….Also not sure what you mean by that. I certainly would rather do business with them than wage war against them. But there military is, quantitatively and technologically, far behind the US…thankfully.

  • Isidro, you were not refused service because the US government thinks you are a likely terrorist. You were refused service because it is illegal for US banks to conduct most forms of financial business with Cuba. This is because of the US embargo which was imposed, not because Cuba was considered a State sponsor of terror, but because the government of Cuba seized the property & assets of US corporations and individuals.

    Please do not try to confuse the two issues. The terrorism issue is not related to the embargo. You may disagree with one or both of those policies, but don’t try to conflate them.

    By the way, it’s funny you should complain that Cuba is on the same sanctions list as Iran, North Korea, Syria and Sudan. It’s funny, because Cuba has recently been caught trading weapons with North Korea, hidden under sacks of Cuban sugar, in violation of UN sanctions on the Kim regime. Cuba recently received a special envoy from the Syrian dictator and announced unwavering support for the brutal regime in Damascus. Aren’t you even a little bit curious what they discussed? Cuba has similarly received diplomats from Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Belarus: a rogues gallery of the world’s most odious dictatorships. Nice company to keep!

    Also recently, Weatherford International Ltd, of Geneva, was fined for doing business with Iran and Sudan in a deal which also involved Cuba, violating not only the US embargo on Cuba, but also UN sanctions on Iran & Sudan.

    Certainly in the past, Cuba was a state sponsor of terrorism. Havana’s support for Colombia’s FARC and various Palestinian terrorist groups is well known. Whether or not Cuba continues to engage in those practices may be debatable. But should a regime which routinely engages in the illegal trade practices listed above, and with an extensive history of supporting terrorism, be given the benefit of the doubt? I think not.

    Unless and until the Cuban government comes clean with all the relevant international bodies about all of these activities, which they have not yet done, the sanctions are reasonable and just.

    It is an unfortunate side-efect that ordinary Cubans abroad are inconvenienced when trying to send remittances to Cuba. But perhaps the complaint would be better directed to the source of the problem in Havana?

  • The hyper-power U.S. has met its match .
    The Chinese have a stranglehold on the U.S. economy and is too large and strong militarily for the U.S to take any action against any Chinese company that chooses to break the embargo.
    Sadly, It has nothing to do with morality on the part of the Chinese but simply a practical matter of economics in the world.

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