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Cuba temporarily reopens consular services in U.S., still seeks bank

By Marc Frank

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba has temporarily reopened consular services in the United States after its bank postponed closing the accounts of its diplomatic missions in Washington and New York, it said in a statement released to media on Monday.

Consular services were suspended on November 27 by the Cuban Interests Section, Havana's mission in Washington, when it failed to find a replacement for M&T Bank Corp, which had decided to stop offering services to foreign diplomatic missions.

The United States and Cuba do not have diplomatic relations but maintain lower level Interests Sections in each other's capitals.

The decision, which Cuba blamed on U.S. sanctions, threatened to disrupt a recent surge in travel between the two countries on the eve of the busy holiday season.

It also threatened to undermine the Obama administration's "people-to-people" policy to increase Cubans' contact with compatriots living in the United States and groups of U.S. visitors licensed to visit the Caribbean island. There are still tight restrictions on general U.S. travel to the communist-run country, however.

An Interests Section press release published on Monday said the bank would postpone closing the Cuban diplomatic missions' accounts in the United States until March and would continue to receive deposits for consular services until February 17.

"The Cuban Interests Section continues efforts to identify a new bank," the press release said.

According to Cuban officials and U.S. diplomats, both parties have worked for months to replace M&T, but it has been difficult to find another bank because of onerous sanctions regulations and the mounds of small, individual receipts Cuba deposits that must be rigorously processed.

A U.S. diplomat told Reuters on Sunday that the search for a permanent new bank to handle the Cuban accounts continued, and a possible solution might be near at hand.

While the Cuban government does not publish statistics on the number of Cuban-Americans visiting the country each year, tourism industry sources and U.S. charter companies and travel agencies place the figure at about 350,000, all of whom must seek entry visas. Cuban emigres must keep their Cuban passports up to date through the Cuban Interests Section in Washington and pay a renewal fee of $200 every two years.

An additional 100,000 Americans now travel annually to Cuba in groups organized under special people-to-people licenses that exempt them from a general ban on U.S. citizens visiting Cuba. They must obtain a tourism card from the Cuban Interests Section before traveling.

A cruise ship carrying some 500 U.S. students was due to arrive in Havana on Monday for a two day stay as part of an educational program called Semester at Sea.

A look at Havana hotels and private restaurants on Sunday revealed hundreds of Americans chatting and meeting with guest lecturers.

"People-to-people travel to Cuba over the past few months has seen a tremendous surge in activity both on a passenger basis and the amount of organizations providing opportunities," said Tom Popper, president of New York-based Insight Cuba.

Popper, whose nonprofit business brings thousands of Americans to Cuba under the people-to-people program, said a longer-term solution would be found for Cuba.

"Regarding the banking snafu, it is clear that both governments and all parties involved have a strong interest in resolving the matter," he said, "and we anticipate a solution shortly."

(Editing by David Adams and Lisa Von Ahn)

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