News and Facts about Cuba

French bank accepts harsh U.S. conditions, pulls out of Cuba

French bank accepts harsh U.S. conditions, pulls out of Cuba
By Johannes Werner and Vito Echevarria

CUBA STANDARD — As part of an agreement to pay record fines of $8.97
billion to settle allegations it used U.S. dollars in transactions with
Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Burma, French bank BNP Paribas promised U.S.
enforcers to terminate all business with U.S.-sanctioned countries “in
any currency,” according to a 10-page settlement agreement released by
the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).

While the use of U.S. dollars in transactions with Cuba and other
U.S.-sanctioned countries violates U.S. laws, doing business with Cuba
is perfectly legal under French laws.

The amount is below the $10 billion U.S. authorities threatened to fine
BNP, according to earlier press reports, and BNP’s Cuba-related dollar
transactions are dwarfed by those with Sudan and Cuba. Also, if BNP’s
practices involving Cuba are an indicator, foreign banks doing business
with Cuba have instituted internal policies to avoid U.S. dollar
transactions since at least 2007.

Even so, the cost to Cuba is likely high. In the settlement, BNP agrees
to “terminate all business and prohibiting new business in any currency
with sanctioned entities,” fire employees who violate U.S. sanctions,
and relocate its global sanctions compliance unit from Paris to New
York, according to OFAC. It will also be forced to handle all of its
global dollar transactions through a third entity for one year,
according to a BNP press release.

“We express our regret for these past errors that led us today to this
agreement,” BNP CEO Jean-Laurent Bonnafé said in the release.

BNP’s harsh penalty and surrender to Washington makes the
extraterritorial reach of U.S. laws obvious and sends yet another chill
through third-country banks doing business with Cuba. Observers believe
this will prompt the Cuban government and its business partners to
reduce dollar transactions to those impossible to avoid — thus raising
transaction costs even more — seek business with banks less vulnerable
to U.S. threats, and cause other large western banks to pull out or
abstain from doing business with Cuba.

The Irish Independent reported July 3 that the Bank of Ireland became
the latest financial institute to tell customers they will stop doing
business with Cuba.

One way bank abstinence may affect the Cuban is via its .

“Cuba has massive external debt, and is trying to restructure some of
it,” said Judith Alison Lee of Washington law firm Gibson, Dunn &
Crutcher LLC. However, Cuba is having difficulty securing the most
advantageous restructuring arrangements, in large part because sanctions
prevent foreign banks with U.S. exposure from providing advisory
services related to U.S. dollar debt to Cuba.

“Assisting Cuba could expose them to liability, and as a result, many
are simply unwilling to conduct any transactions related to Cuba. As a
result, Cuba may have to rely on potentially less expert firms, which do
not have any U.S. exposure.”

As of Tuesday, Cuba had not made any official statement regarding the
BNP settlement.

Following escalating U.S. enforcement actions over the past decade,
several banks such as Switzerland’s UBS and Crédit Suisse,
Netherlands-based ING, and Britain’s HSBC Holdings reduced their Cuba
business or abandoned the country altogether. According to press
reports, U.S. investigators are currently targeting ’s Crédit
Agricole as well as Deutsche Bank.

The incriminated BNP transactions

The OFAC settlement agreement — which does not constitute an admission
of any fault on part of the bank — says BNP participated in eight credit
facilities in U.S. dollars to Cuban entities. In 2007, the bank
instituted an internal policy that blocked U.S. dollar transactions with
Cuba, and converted six of the eight credit facilities to euros. But it
wasn’t until August 2012 that it converted the last Cuban credit
facility to euros, according to OFAC.

The bulk of BNP’s alleged violations regarding Cuba center on 909
payments from 2005 through 2012 for a total of $689 million, performed
by the bank’s Paris headquarters, its commodity finance division in
Geneva, Switzerland, and various third-country branches. They involve
trade finance instruments in U.S. dollars, retail banking transactions,
and one banking instrument in U.S. dollars for a Cuban entity
processed by the BNP branch in Milan, Italy.

That compares to $1.12 billion for BNP transactions with Iran and $8.37
billion with Sudan.

While legal under French and Swiss laws, the use of U.S. dollars in
transactions with Cuba and other U.S.-sanctioned countries violates U.S.
laws. SWIFT payments in U.S. dollars must clear through U.S.-based
computers, and that violates U.S. sanctions, policy enforcers in
Washington insist.

In addition, OFAC holds against the bank what it considers efforts to
cloak transactions.

“BNPP appears to have engaged in a systematic practice, spanning many
years and many BNPP branches and business lines, that concealed,
removed, omitted or obscured references to … sanctioned parties in U.S.
dollar … SWIFT payment messages sent to U.S. financial institutions,”
the settlement agreement says.

According to the agreement, BNP omitted references to Cuba, Iran and
Sudan in SWIFT payment orders to U.S. corresponding banks, replacing the
names of sanctioned parties with that of BNP or a code name.

BNP in 2004 shifted the U.S. processing of SWIFT dollar payments from
its New York branch to a U.S. bank in New York, in order to avoid
liability, OFAC claims. The document also states that until 2007, the
French bank followed requests from its customers in U.S.-sanctioned
countries to conceal dollar transactions.

Just as Washington seems to be easing on Cuba, ties between France and
the United States are being strained. French Foreign Minister Laurent
Fabius, who visited Havana in March, complained on France 2 TV that
“these figures are not reasonable.” “The fine has to be proportionate
and reasonable,” he said. Other French politicians hinted that the
settlement may scuttle negotiations between the United States and the
over a trans-Atlantic free-trade pact.

The mechanics of U.S. pressure

The BNP case is the latest and biggest in a fast-escalating series of
fines against third-country banks.

A legal expert on OFAC’s enforcement of trade sanctions, Judith Alison
Lee of the Washington law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLC, says that
targeting banks has been a growing element of OFAC’s strategy since
2005. Foreign banks are increasingly being ensnared in a package
proceedings for a variety of reasons, from doing business with nuclear
proliferators like North Korea and Iran, to facilitating the flow of
dollars for state sponsors of terrorism (such as Iran and Sudan), to
money laundering, to facilitating U.S. tax evasion. In those U.S.
investigations, Cuba is almost an afterthought, with OFAC simply
following Washington’s long-standing regime change-driven .

“Since approximately 2005, the U.S. Treasury Department has begun
relying on these banking-related sanctions more frequently,” said Lee.
“The primary reason for this reliance is that the sanctions have
arguably proven effective. In particular, the sanctions influence the
decision-making of foreign financial institutions by forcing them to
make a choice: Either do business with the targeted country (e.g.,
Iran), or do business in the United States. These new forms of sanctions
have proven fairly successful — for example, bringing the Iranians to
the negotiating table over their nuclear program. It’s no surprise then
that —given their success — OFAC has employed similar types against
Cuba, hoping to further increase the pressure on that country.”

Depending on the nature of the alleged sanctions violations, other U.S.
agencies can initiate sanctions proceedings against foreign banks that
trade with Cuba, working hand-in-hand with OFAC.

“OFAC works closely with other agencies, including the Department of
Justice, to penalize European banks that conduct transactions with Cuba
in violation of U.S. law,” said Lee. “For example, in many enforcement
actions taken against European banks, (the Department of Justice) will
suspend if the bank agrees to pay both (it and) OFAC a
certain settlement sum. Over the past few years, other agencies, both
federal and state, have become increasingly involved.”

For example, the New York State Department of Financial Services played
a role in the agreement with Standard Chartered Bank and BNP Paribas.

One foreign banker who spoke on background said that Cuba has the
misfortune of being listed as a “state sponsor of terrorism” by the U.S.
State Department, and because of that, European and other international
banks’ Cuba-related activities get red-flagged by OFAC, even if the
amounts involved are modest. “I don’t think Obama’s OFAC is targeting
banks doing business with Cuba (alone),” he said. “They are targeting
banks doing stuff with Iran, North, Korea, Sudan, Syria, and the mostly
minor Cuba transactions just get swept up into the rap sheet.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress is responsible for the steep rise in
amounts. In 2009, Congress raised the statutory maximum from a cap of
$11,000 to $250,000 per violation, or twice the value of the underlying
transaction. This has enabled OFAC to reap unprecedented amounts for
such fines. In 2008, OFAC collected a total of $3.5 million for 108
settled matters. After the statutory changes in 2009, OFAC collected
$772 million for just 27 settled matters.

With such enhanced financial powers from Congress, OFAC has become a
feared household name among the world’s bankers. Some of the
institutions targeted were ING Bank, HSBC Holdings, Crédit Suisse, and
Barclays Bank, which paid the heaviest fines settled with OFAC thus far.
In 2012, OFAC collected over $1.1 billion in fines for just 16 matters.
Although OFAC reaped in just $137 million in 2013 for 26 matters, 2014
will be a record-breaker with the BNP Paribas settlement, which includes
a $963 million OFAC fine.

Getting off Washington’s ‘terror’ list

Pro-normalization activists in the United States have recently focused
on pressing the Obama Administration to take Cuba of the State
Department’s list of “terrorism-sponsoring nations,” as a crucial tool
to improve relations.

Washington lawyer Lee is skeptical.

“The State Department and OFAC maintain different lists, and inclusion
or removal from one does not necessarily change the status of an entity
or a country on the other,” she says. “Even if the president relaxed
sanctions on Cuba, Congress could still independently ratchet up
pressure through additional legislation.”

Another OFAC expert, Washington attorney and one-time OFAC official Hal
Eren, noted that even the use of non-U.S. dollar currencies between Cuba
and its trading partners can trigger sanctions enforcement. Enforcement
actions are overwhelmingly triggered by U.S. dollar (transactions), but
can also involve other currencies, he said.

“What matters is where the transaction occurs and who conducts it,” Lee
added. “Red flags generally include systematic attempts by large
financial institutions to cover their tracks and hide any transactions
which could violate U.S. sanctions on Cuba.”

Eren said that any type of international commerce Cuba conducts can
become a sanctions target – from commodity trade financing for nickel,
sugar, or oil sales, to payments for Cuban medical services.

Some political observers have criticized Washington for penalizing
international banks’ transactions with Cuba with the same severity as
countries conducting allegedly more nefarious activities, such as Iran
and North Korea, since Havana has nothing to do with nuclear
proliferation, or international terrorism. “Florida has a Cuban-American
population and is a swing state,” said OFAC legal expert Erich Ferrari
in Washington, referring to that community’s influence on presidential
elections. “If you’re not tough enough on Cuba, you have the potential
of losing that state. That’s why we have Cuba (OFAC) sanctions today.”

Downside for the dollar?

A number of international banks still have a Cuban presence, such as
Scotiabank and National Bank of (whose offices are at Havana’s
glitzy Miramar Trade Center), and ’s Banco Bilbao Vizcaya
Argentaria (BBVA). But they tend to keep a low profile, due to the U.S.

To minimize exposure to Washington’s sanctions campaign against Cuba,
these banks are facilitating the island’s international trade in other

“Here, we only use the euro or the Canadian dollar,” said Havana-based
Chilean businessman Ángel Domper, whose trading firm TJP Internacional
supplies the island’s supermarkets and sector with items
from various Latin American countries.

For the time being, international banks are still likely to comply with
OFAC’s demands, simply because they don’t want to be shut out of the
U.S. economy.

“The dollar is the prevailing trade currency,” said Ferrari.
“International banks are going to have to have a presence in New York.
These banks are saying ‘what are we going to make from these Cuba
transactions versus losing a license (in USA)?’”

But in the long run, there may be a downside to the U.S. crackdown on
foreign banks.

Says Washington lawyer Lee: “If foreign banks are increasingly subjected
to having their licenses being revoked (to operate in USA), such steep
penalties may incur a re-thinking of the decision to conduct
transactions using the dollar.”

Source: French bank accepts harsh U.S. conditions, pulls out of Cuba «
Cuba Standard, your best source for Cuban business news –

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