U.S. travelers may soon be able to hop on flights to Havana, but it will take much more time for the banking industry to feel the full impact of the Obama administration's new rules on economic links with Cuba.
The regulations, which take effect today, allow American banks to establish correspondent banking relationships in Cuba, and to process credit card and debit card transactions in the island nation.
The relaxed rules also enable Americans to send more money to Cuban relatives than was allowed in the past. And they allow U.S. companies to export a wider range of goods to Cuba. President Obama promised the new Cuba regulations in a surprise announcement on Dec. 17.
"Basically the whole effort is to enable average Cubans, to give them greater opportunities to essentially operate outside of being dependent on the Cuban state," a senior administration official said Jan. 15 during a conference call with reporters.
Over the next several years, the looser policies should lead to significant new opportunities for U.S. banks. But at the moment, several sticking points remain, according to sources who spent yesterday poring through 89 pages of detailed new regulations from the U.S. Treasury and Commerce departments.
"I think there's going to be a long period of time for digesting what these changes mean," said David Schwartz, chief executive of the Florida International Bankers Association.
What's more, U.S. banks are still waiting to hear from the Cuban government about the legal framework that they'll be subject to, Schwartz said. In other words, to become more comfortable doing business in Cuba, American bankers will need to hear from Havana as well as Washington.
There's also a question of how quickly economic and cultural change will happen in Cuba, even after the necessary policies are in place. Robert Muse, a Washington lawyer who specializes in U.S.-Cuba relations, said that he travels frequently to Cuba and has never seen a credit card transaction in a private restaurant. So the adoption of plastic will require a cultural shift inside Cuba.
"This is totally new to them. And they're going to have to negotiate a merchant agreement with the credit card company," Muse said. "I would see that growing slowly."
Another impediment that's yet to be addressed is Cuba's inclusion on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. Last month, Obama asked the State Department to review that designation, but that process has yet to be completed.
Muse said that Cuba's continuing designation as a state sponsor of terrorism likely impacts bankers' assessments of risk. "Just the word 'terrorist' feeds into that," he said.
There's also the issue of how eagerly various U.S. government agencies will embrace the administration's new Cuba policy. The congressionally imposed embargo remains in effect, of course. And recent sanctions cases against BNP Paribas and the Royal Bank of Scotland have reportedly involved transactions with Cuba.
"An overzealous regulatory culture can stifle a presidential policy initiative," Muse said. "What I would hope happens is that everybody gets on board with this."
Robert Rowe, a vice president at the American Bankers Association, compared the U.S.-Cuba relationship to the situation several years ago in the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar, where the U.S. government was starting to encourage investment.
"No one wanted to be at the head of the line," Rowe said. But eventually U.S. financial institutions, including Visa and MasterCard, did begin to make sizable investments in Myanmar.
U.S. banks that are interested in Cuba may dip their toes in the water by first turning to correspondent banks in Europe that have relationships in the Caribbean nation, Rowe said. He also predicted that increased travel between the U.S. and Cuba will lead to more commercial activity, which will result in more opportunities for American banks.
But he cautioned, "I have a feeling that any changes will be very gradual."