This story was written following my first May 2009 visit to Havana. Its caution is current as of May 2010.
“Declina…” The clerk in the Casa de Cambio currency kiosk in the basement of Havana’s Hotel Nacional shrugged helplessly, then slid my MasterCard back under the glass divider.
Declined? I wasn’t even close to my limit.
But I was out of cash.
I’d arrived in Havana that morning with just $40 Canadian in my wallet. Why carry cash, I’d figured, when I could simply show my Canadian passport and Canadian-issued credit card to get whatever I needed at my hotel, one of the largest in Havana?
Not so fast.
It turns out my MasterCard, issued by my Canadian credit union, processes its transactions through a company called CUETS Financial. CUETS, a subsidiary of MBNA Canada Bank, is nominally a Regina-based cardholder services company that handles all credit card purchases by customers at 375 credit unions and caisses populaires across Canada. But in 2007—as part of the ongoing gobbling globalization of the financial services industry—Bank of America acquired MBNA and moved all its card processing to the U.S.
What that means for Canadian travelers is that, thanks to the ongoing American trade embargo against Cuba, the company is “bound by U.S. law to disallow transactions from sanctioned countries, including Cuba.”
In 2008, the Canadian Network on Cuba, a lobby group, complained to the RCMP that the company’s policy violated Canada’s Foreign Extra Territorial Measures Act, which requires Canadian subsidiaries of foreign companies to abide by Canadian law. But the Mounties eventually concluded CUETS wasn’t breaking any Canadian law.
With Cuba now the fourth most popular tourist destination for Canadians—more than 930,000 Canadians soaked up the sun there in 2009—providing comprehensive reliable advice on which cards are accepted might seem to be in everyone’s interest.
But getting that information isn’t easy.
The Toronto-based Cuba Tourist Board’s website, for example, blandly explains that “all travelers cheques and credit cards must be drawn and from Canadian financial institutions.” The Canadian government’s official travel advisory adds unhelpfully that “some credit cards issued by certain Canadian financial institutions are not accepted” in Cuba.
Which ones? Well, it turns out, the leave-home-without-it list may include more than just MasterCards issued by credit unions and caisses populaires.
While Canadian and European bank-issued Visa cards and traveler’s cheques are touted to work, American Express cards and traveller’s cheques don’t.
The situation with MasterCards is murkier.
MBNA’s website, for example, describes the company as “the leading provider of co-branded and affinity credit card programs in Canada,” which means that card you got to support your university alumni or favourite sports team might not work in Cuba.
CUETS also boasts that it processes transactions for other credit card issuers, including President’s Choice MasterCard. But Karren King, a spokesperson for the PC card says there are “no issues” using its card to make purchases in Cuba.
A spokesperson for HSBC, on the other hand, acknowledges you can’t use its MasterCard in Cuba.
The lesson? Perhaps a twist on that old American Express jingle: Cash? Don’t leave home without it.
As for me and my Cuban cash-flow problems, I was eventually directed to Assistur, a Cuban-government company that provides emergency assistance to visitors in financial distress. I had to visit its old-city Havana office, fill out a form, call my wife back in Canada, get her to fill out another form and then find a local bank willing—no easy task—to wire cash to Assistur.
And then… wait.
Less than a day later—quicker than usual, I was told—an obliging Assistur officer handed me my freshly minted Cuban convertible pesos.
Minus, of course, an 11 per cent handling fee.