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Cuban Club in Ybor City tries to convince financiers it does no business in Cuba

A statue of Jose Marti, considered the George Washington of Cuba, adorns the entrance to the historic Cuban Club, 2010 14th Ave in Ybor City. The club's $190,000 loan for renovation work was frozen by financial institutions seeking assurances it isn't doing business with Cuba. [SKIP O'ROURKE | Times]
Published Feb. 27, 2018

YBOR CITY — The historic Cuban Club is planning to start some renovations — as soon as a $190,000 loan already approved hits the bank.

That was supposed to happen Friday. On Tuesday evening, the club still was waiting.

The reason has nothing to do with the club's credit. Instead, it's about long-standing trade laws banning most U.S. financial transactions with a country shunned by the federal government for embracing Marxism more than five decades ago.

The Cuban Club, it seems, has "Cuban" in its name.

Financial institutions flag any transaction with phrases related to Cuba until it can be verified — through research by the institution or by the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control.

The money should be freed up this week, once everyone is convinced no business is being done with Cuba, said Patrick Manteiga, secretary of the Cuban Club's 501(c)(3) fundraising foundation.

Still, Manteiga isn't happy.

"This is word discrimination," he said. "And this could affect us again."

Some transactions with Cuba are permitted under licenses from the Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC, including travel-related services, payments for exports and for imports, said John Kavulich of the New York-based U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.

But U.S. financial companies "remain extremely cautious, viewing each Cuba-related transaction as unauthorized until proven otherwise," Kavulich said.

Structural repairs estimated at $2.6 million are planned for the Cuban Club, a four-story, yellow brick structure with a neoclassical design built in 1917. The Cuban Club was built to replace an earlier center destroyed by fire and served originally as home to a recreational and mutual aid society for Cuban immigrants who founded Ybor City. It now honors that legacy.

To help pay for the renovations, the club obtained a $1 million reimbursement grant from the state of Florida. The grant must be used by June, so time is of the essence.

Money from a Century Bank loan was to be available Friday.

But Century's title company, Fidelity National Title of Florida, uses Bank of America, which suspended the outgoing wire transfer, according to emails among Manteiga, Century and Fidelity that were shared with the Tampa Bay Times.

Bank of America released the money Tuesday but Manteiga was told the wire transfer might be frozen again as it passes through the other institutions.

The Cuban Club is the latest in a long line of interests so see its transactions held up. In 2015 and 2016, for instance, Miami's MyCubanStore.com discovered that customers' PayPal transactions were routinely suspended as they tried to purchase its Cuban fashions.

Manteiga favors restoring full relations with Cuba, he said, but not everyone in the club does — and he sees the membership's stand on the question as irrelevant in its business dealings.

"Just Google us," Manteiga suggested, "to find out we don't do business with Cuba."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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