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The Co-op Bank closed the accounts of the British Cuba Solidarity Campaign in November 2015. Photo: Getty Images

As reported in GI in March, the Co-op Bank closed the bank accounts of the British Cuba Solidarity Campaign (CSC) in November 2015, citing among the reasons a change in its “risk appetite” and “global regulations”.

Now, following a huge campaign by CSC members and affiliates, the bank’s Chief Executive Niall Booker has finally confirmed in writing that the closure was due to “risk” arising from the sanctions imposed on the island by the U.S. government.

Responding to direct questions from concerned CSC members, Booker stated “It is correct that the sanctions that are in place are those imposed by OFAC.”

As such, the bank has acknowledged the extraterritorial application of the blockade in closing the accounts. Obeying the sanctions imposed by the United States Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) is illegal under British and European Union law.

Both the British government and the European Union opposed the strengthening by the United States of the extraterritorial application of the blockade in the 1990s, through the Torricelli Law (1992) and the Helms-Burton Act (1996). In 1996, the European Council adopted Regulation (EC) No. 2271/96 on “protecting against the effects of the extra-territorial application of legislation adopted by a third country, and actions based thereon or resulting therefrom.”

Meanwhile, the same year the British parliament approved Order No. 3171 relating to the Protection of Trading Interests Act on “The Extraterritorial U.S. Legislation”. This legislation provides the British government with the power to penalize any natural or legal person complying with extraterritorial aspects of U.S. blockade legislation on British territory, as a means to counter its effects.

However, although this legislation remains on the statute books, it has never been invoked. This despite the fact that the UK Trade & Investment Department (UKTI) cites the legislation when advising businesses wishing to develop trade with Cuba that U.S. sanctions do not represent a legal impediment.

Given this situation, CSC is continuing its campaign, calling on activists and members to write to their MPs demanding that the British government urge the Co-operative bank to end its discriminatory policies against organizations wishing to undertake banking transactions with Cuba; apply existing UK legislation to counteract the extraterritorial effects of the U.S. blockade; and make urgent and robust representations to the relevant U.S. authorities to cease the application of these illegal trade measures.

Likewise, CSC has written in protest to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department of Trade and Industry to ask that they make urgent representations to the U.S. government and the Co-operative bank to ensure British individuals and companies are free to make transactions and work with Cuba without being subject to U.S. sanctions.

Meanwhile, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Cuba (APPG) has also taken action and written directly to the UK government on this issue. Cat Smith MP, chair of the APPG stated: “It cannot be right that this UK based organization (CSC) should be penalized due to United States’ blockade policies when the organization is doing nothing more than promoting better UK-Cuba relations in accord with UK Government policies.”

While the UKTI acknowledges: “The risk of U.S. sanctions can create uncertainty and businesses, especially banks, sometimes find themselves caught between conflicting legal requirements,” those working in solidarity with the island continue to campaign for the British government to ensure that those persons or businesses who find themselves in similar circumstances can trust in the sovereignty of the laws of the country in which they are operating, and not see themselves forced to obey OFAC sanctions.

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