In the wake of Hurricane Irma, people around the world are seeking ways to assist the clear up and recovery effort in the Caribbean, including Cuba. But the experience of a group of Cubans in Britain suggests that making donations to Cuba is becoming harder since the island re-established diplomatic relations with the United States in summer 2015. Two US-based companies, Stripe and GoFundMe have just pulled the plug on their project to send a piano to Cuba.
How hard can it be to send a piano to Cuba?
In May 2016, I wrote an article (British-Based Cubans Face US Blockade in Piano Project) for CounterPunch about a group of Cuban musicians based in Britain who had their money withheld by US company Eventbrite after they used the ticket sales website for a classical music concert. The event was a fundraiser for a project to buy a second hand concert piano to send to the Amadeo Roldan music school in Havana. Eventbrite confirmed that the ticket money was withheld ‘pursuant to US Department of Treasury, Office of Foreign Asset Controls (OFAC) regulations and sanctions program’ – in other words the US blockade of Cuba.
Cuban pianist, Eralys Fernandez, who initiated the project, and the group Cubans in the UK, continued to collect money through other events and their ‘GoFundMe’ page which was set up in February 2016. By early September 2017, the project had raised nearly £6,500 and a grand piano is now sailing to Havana. In good time it seems, as just then Eralys received a message from US company Stripe, which process all GoFundMe donations, saying that the account would have to be closed. It related the decision directly to President Trump’s new Cuba policy announced on 16 June.
‘As you may be aware, on June 16 of this year, the U.S. government announced its intention to impose new restrictions on US firms working with Cuban businesses. As a result, we’ve made a decision to deactivate user accounts that may conflict with this new policy or where we may be unable to meet increasing compliance oversight obligations. Effective today, you will no longer be able to accept additional transactions on your account. You’ll continue to receive pay-outs from your Stripe account to your bank account until you’ve received all of your remaining funds’.
Cubans in the UK responded by informing Stripe, as they previously had Eventbrite, that ‘any attempt to impose the United States’ Cuba sanctions in Britain is illegal. US regulations are in contravention of both British and European legislation from 1996 (European Council Regulation (EC) No. 2271/96 and Order No. 3171 passed by the British Parliament).
They also pointed out that: ‘There has been no financial exchange with, or monetary transfer to Cuba. We are not a “Cuban business”. The money we raise on GoFundMe has been deposited in a British bank’ and added: ‘The application of extra-territorial aspects of the United States’ sanctions on Cuba are also illegal under international law and the national laws of most countries. These laws are also discriminatory, racist and unlawful under the Race Relations Act of 1976.’
Stripe’s reply insisted that: ‘At this time, businesses with a connection to Cuba exceed Stripe’s risk tolerance regardless of whether they are operating lawfully and in compliance with OFAC’s regulations.’
What is the ‘risk’ that Stripe fears? It is OFAC which has slapped fines in the millions and billions of dollars on entities that have carried out transactions related to Cuba. Does Stripe fear a fine from OFAC, even if when its actions comply with OFAC’s regulations? An OFAC statement published on 16 June 2017 to coincide with Trump’s Cuba speech clearly states that: ‘The announced changes do not take effect until OFAC issues new regulations’ and that policy will not be applied retrospectively: ‘any Cuba-related commercial engagement that includes direct transactions with entities related to the Cuban military, intelligence, or security services that may be implicated by the new Cuba policy will be permitted provided that those commercial engagements were in place prior to the issuance of the forthcoming regulations.’
Stripe’s reply continues: ‘More importantly (and more relevant to your circumstances), since Stripe is a US based company, it must make operational decisions under US law, even if a business using Stripe is domiciled in a country outside of the United States.’
Stripe is less concerned about violating international or any other national laws, than the ‘risk’ from US authorities. It is perhaps worth pointing out that Stripe was founded by two Irish brothers, established its UK business in 2013 and has an office in London’s Old Street.
What an astonishing and regrettable retreat from Stripe! In late March 2016, Stripe’s co-founder, Irish billionaire Patrick Collison, flew his private jet from Miami to Havana to join Obama’s entourage during the first US Presidential visit to Cuba in 88 years. This followed the announcement on 18 March that Stripe would open its new ‘business-in-a-box’ service, Stripe Atlas, to Cuban entrepreneurs on the island, enabling them to open a bank account in the US that could receive payments from around the world. Stripe had given Cubans access to Atlas at the request of officials from the Obama administration. Now, it seems, Stripe is running scared from Trump. But why? The new Cuba policy sets out to prohibit dealings with the Cuban military, intelligence and security services, and eliminate individual ‘people-to-people’ travel. Neither of these are relevant for a charitable project to help an educational institution in Cuba.
Meanwhile, GoFundMe also contacted Eralys to say: ‘your GoFundMe account has been removed. We will be unable to disclose any information as to why your account has been closed.’
Fortunately, nothing short of another hurricane can now stop the hard-earned piano being donated to the music school in Havana, whose students wait in excited anticipation. No thanks to the British government, however, who did nothing in response to Eventbrite’s confiscation of the fundraising ticket money. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) told Cubans in the UK that ‘The FCO is unfortunately unable to provide legal advice on this [Eventbrite] issue and I therefore suggest you commission your own legal advice if you believe that any UK legislation has not been followed.’ For its part, it would, ‘continue to raise our objections with the US, and to discuss this issue with officials at HM Treasury and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ (letter dated 5 July 2016).
As the devastation of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma have come to light, many have asked what it would feel like in Houston or Florida if a foreign power imposed an economic blockade, obstructing their access to the resources needed for their recovery; generating scarcities and raising costs. That is the hardship that Cuba and Cubans have known for over 55 years. Not just following an emergency, but every day. Now we have to wonder, what will happen to all the donations towards Cuba’s hurricane damage being collected by solidarity groups around the world? Will the fear of Trump’s Cuba policy block them from reaching their destination?