For fear of US authorities You hear “Cuba” – and Swiss banks immediately stop the transfer.

The Medicuba organization is denied, time and again, money transfers. Its president, Franco Cavalli, speaks of an infamous vileness

“The banks probably have a guilty conscience because of tax evasion”: The Ticino doctor and former SP National Councilor Franco Cavalli.
Photo: Jean-Christophe Bott (Keystone).

At some point in the telephone conversation Franco Cavalli is outraged. Even very indignant. The former parliamentarian of the Swiss Socialist Party in the canton of Ticino, and faction leader, says: “It is vile. It is not more than that. It is an infamous vileness.

At 78, Cavalli, a cancer specialist, is a very busy man. Among other things, he is the president of Medicuba Europe, a Swiss NGO with sections in 14 European countries, which provides medical aid to the socialist island. Medicuba recently bought antibiotics from a small pharmaceutical company in western Switzerland to ship to the Caribbean.

The company has an account with the UBS bank. When Medicuba wants to pay for his purchases by transfer, the bank sends the money back, with reference to the American embargo on Cuba. Obviously, the institution fears reprisals from the other side of the Atlantic.

Please note it is a transfer from the Swiss Medicuba account to another Swiss account. No money flows to Cuba or the USA. For the rejection of the transfer order, it is obviously sufficient that the word ” Cuba ” appears in the name of the organization. Even when Cavalli proposes to make the transfer from his own personal account, the bank rejects it.

The retired Bern doctor Raffaele Malinverni is a board member at Medicuba Switzerland. ” Sometimes the branch of a bank sends a certain amount back, while another branch of the same bank accepts the money without any problems, ” says Malinverni. One can never foresee the reactions of the banks, but the two big banks Credit Suisse and UBS, the Basler Kantonalbank and its subsidiary Cler and occasionally other cantonal banks are frequent objectors.

Donations are also rejected
Often banks also refuse to transfer membership fees and donations to the organization. Roland Wüest, who works as a coordinator at Medicuba , writes on request: “By no means all refused payments are reported to us. Roughly I would say that ten payments are affected per month . That means around 15 percent of all transfers to us. “

In the case of antibiotics, the pharmaceutical company from western Switzerland has to open a special account at Postfinance so that Medicuba can pay the amount owed. Malinverni says: ” Somehow you always find a solution, but it takes time and nerves every time. “

The Medicuba aid organization, founded in 1992, has four employees, and the Directorate for Development and Cooperation (SDC) carries around a third of its annual budget of CHF 800,000. In Cuba, the NGO cares for autistic children, it is active in HIV prevention, carries out minimally invasive surgery for cancer and enables Cuban intensive care physicians to receive further training in Switzerland.

“The banks say that our humanitarian commitment is actually great.”

Raffaele Malinverni, doctor and board member at Medicuba

Malinverni explains that

“Every time we protest at a bank about the refused payments, they say that our humanitarian commitment is great – but it is the way it is. “

If you ask banks, the answers are similar. The magic word is ” reputational risk ” .

“UBS monitors business activities in the area of ​​payment transactions very closely and clarifies the risks associated with a payment before it is approved”, writes the press office of the big bank.

Basler Kantonalbank justifies itself by stating that the banks have to take into account the risks from cross-border service business, in particular foreign sanctions, in their business activities.

The Swiss organization Medicuba supports Cuba’s health system. 
Here a doctor measures a patient’s blood pressure before he receives the Cuban vaccine against Covid.
Photo: Adalberto Roque (AFP)

In January Medicuba sent a notification to the financial market regulator Finma. It lists numerous cases of refused transfers, combined with the requirement to take “ appropriate measures ” against the banks concerned.

On request, Finma writes: ” Financial institutions must analyze, minimize and appropriately control the legal and reputational risks that can arise from foreign law. Which measures the banks use to implement this is the responsibility of the banks. “

No American works at Medicuba
Medicuba has also had a legal opinion prepared by the Washington law firm Robert L. Muse, which is available to this newspaper. It concludes that referrals to the organization never in any way violate the US embargo for several reasons. Medicuba is a humanitarian organization, its headquarters are outside the USA, the transfers are not in dollars and do not flow into the USA or Cuba. There would also be no Americans on the organization’s board.

Bern lawyer Willi Egloff, who represents Medicuba legally, considers the practice of Swiss banks to be illegal, at least in the case of cantonal banks. “These are public law institutions. If you refuse to serve a Swiss citizen, you are violating the prohibition of arbitrariness, “says Egloff. But he will not complain. Medicuba had to spend the money on smarter things than litigation.

Franco Cavalli suspects that the Swiss banks are so over-anxious about the US because they used to help American tax evaders with their dirty business without hesitation – an overcompensation out of a guilty conscience at the expense of humanitarian engagement.

Cuba is also fighting the pandemic: a doctor in Havana and waiting patients.
Photo: Ramon Espinosa (AP)

A remarkable thing recently happened in the Foreign Affairs Commission of the National Council. The majority of them agreed to a postulate according to which the Federal Council should work for a relaxation of the US embargo and for smooth payment transactions between Switzerland and Cuba. At the beginning of March, the National Council referred the matter – thanks to the approval of the Left and, surprisingly, the FDP.

“Even today, a majority of the Cuban population would vote for the Communist Party.”

Hans-Peter Portmann, Zurich FDP National Council.

The decisive factor for this was the Zurich National Councilor Hans-Peter Portmann, President of the Parliamentary Group Switzerland Cuba and a great lover of the island. For all the criticism and all the political differences at the Castro regime is Portmann convinced that even a majority of the Cuban population today would choose Communist party.

Franco Cavalli doubts that the Federal Council or the banks will be impressed by Parliament’s decision. After all, a postulate is little more than a pious wish.

Note from Granma: The National Council (Lower House) of the Swiss Parliament endorsed on March 9 the active role of Switzerland in order to end the economic, commercial and financial blockade of the United States.  to Cuba, by approving, by 98 votes, a postulate in that sense, proposed by the Foreign Policy Commission.

* Article published in the Swiss newspaper Berner Zeitung.