Western Union closes Cuba offices close as sanctions bite

People are seen outside a Western Union office in Havana, as the US-based money transfer company shuts its officers in Cuba after new US sanctions on Nov. 23, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 24 November 2020

Western Union closes Cuba offices close as sanctions bite

  • Money transfers from the US via Western Union were estimated at more than $1 billion last year
  • Current options for remittances include agencies that hire ‘mules’ to fly out to Cuba with cash

HAVANA: Western Union suspended its operations across Cuba on Monday evening as new US sanctions kicked in, cutting a key lifeline for many struggling Cuban families as the coronavirus pandemic deepens the Communist-run island’s economic crisis.
US President-elect Joe Biden has promised to roll back some sanctions on remittances. But any lifting of the suspension could take time and until then, Cuban Americans are expected to resort to alternatives that are more costly, less secure and less rapid.
Remittances to Cuba are believed to be around $2 billion to $3 billion annually, representing its third biggest source of dollars after the services industry and tourism.
Money transfers from the United States via Western Union were estimated at more than $1 billion last year, the majority of which was sent from Florida, according to John Kavulich, president of the US-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.
Current options for remittances include agencies that hire “mules” to fly out to Cuba with cash and which predate Western Union’s start in Cuba 20 years ago, as well as companies that transfer dollars to Cuban accounts – though that money can only be used at state stores.
Cryptocurrency exchanges are also promoting themselves as an alternative. Cuban Americans can transfer digital currencies to middle men on the island who then give money to the Cuban Americans’ relatives.
But such platforms lack oversight, cryptocurrencies can fluctuate rapidly and unexpectedly in value and Internet access is still not a given in Cuba, Kavulich said.
“We’ve looked but there are no safe services,” said local resident Arturo Labaut.
The closures of Western Union’s 407 offices in Cuba came into effect after US President Donald Trump’s administration banned US firms sending remittances via military-controlled companies that include Western Union’s main Cuban partner.
His administration has also previously capped the amount Cuban Americans can send family members at $1,000 per quarter, and transfers of money to non-family members are no longer allowed.
The new ban comes just as Cuba has started enacting structural reforms to revive its state-run economy which have been long called for but which will spell pain for its residents in the meantime.
“It’s a bad time to be doing this because of the suffering it will cause,” said Florida International University professor Guillermo Grenier.
“It’s not governments that suffer, it’s people.”


Emirates stops flights to three major Australian cities

Updated 16 January 2021

Emirates stops flights to three major Australian cities

  • Flights to/from Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne will be suspended until further notice: Emirates
  • The airline will still run two flights a week to Perth

DUBAI: Emirates has suspended flights to Australia's three largest cities as the country further restricts international arrivals over fears of new virus strains.
The Dubai-based carrier was one of the last to maintain routes into and out of the country's east coast throughout most of the pandemic but on Friday evening told travellers a handful of planned flights next week would be the last.
"Due to operational reasons, Emirates flights to/from Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne will be suspended until further notice," Emirates said on its website.
The airline will still run two flights a week to Perth, but the cuts are another barrier for tens of thousands of stranded Australians still attempting to return home.
The Australian government responded by announcing more repatriation flights and said other carriers still flying services to the cities could fill the gap.
"The capacity that Emirates was able to use within the cap will be allocated to other airlines, ensuring that there are still as many tickets, as many seats available into Australia," Finance Minister Simon Birmingham said.
A small number of airlines - including Qatar Airways and Singapore Airlines - are still running services to Australia but local media were already reporting delays and cancellations among returning travellers.
Australia's borders have effectively been closed since March to curb the spread of the virus, with the government even limiting the number of citizens allowed to return.
Last week travel restrictions were further tightened, with arrival numbers slashed and all travellers into the country requiring a negative Covid-19 test before flying.
In making the changes, Prime Minister Scott Morrison cited a growing number of people in quarantine testing positive for new strains of Covid-19.
Fears that a variant of the virus from Britain, believed to be more contagious, had leaked into Brisbane from hotel quarantine triggered a snap lockdown in the city last week.
"There are many unknowns and uncertainties in relation to the new strain, and so that's why this precautionary approach, we believe, is very sensible," Morrison said.
Australia continues to deal relatively well with the virus, having recorded about 28,600 cases and 909 deaths linked to Covid-19 in a population of 25 million.