It wasn't all that long ago that dropping any cash at a Havana hotel or restaurant was about as realistic for American travelers as finding a cheap drink on Ocean Drive. So it's remarkable that beginning today, U.S. residents will be able to use a debit card at about 10,000 locations in Cuba.
The news from MasterCard and South Florida-based Stonegate Bank is the latest chip in the already fast-thawing freeze between Cuban businesses and American banks.
"This should this relieve the burden a little on business travelers and any American travelers in Cuba," Dave Seleski, president and CEO of Stonegate Bank, tells New Times.
Of course, the move doesn't mean a free-for-all, easy access to debit services for most American travelers. The debit plan works only for those with a Mastercard issued through Stonegate, which is a small Pompano Beach-based company. And for now, ATMs across the country will allow cards to work only on credit, though Seleski says the government is working on that and should have debit services available by 2016.
But the move is still a significant step toward normalized relations between America and the Castro regime. The plan was set in motion earlier this year when Stonegate became the first U.S. bank to sign a corresponding banking agreement with Cuba, allowing Stonegate to become the official financial backer of the new U.S. embassy in Havana.
Seleski spent the summer working with MasterCard — which unlocked its cards for American travelers in Cuba this past in March — and the Cuban government to set up a debit card process.
"The Cuban government has actually been very easy to deal with," Seleski says. "The relationship has been so dysfunctional for so many years, it's actually been really fun to be part of the process making it work more smoothly again."
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The vast majority of Cuba's 10,000 or so debit card processors are at hotels and restaurants, Seleski says, but access should expand as more American travelers take advantage of the change.
"We hope a lot more banks will follow suit and follow our lead," Seleski says.
Despite continued political opposition to reopening ties with Cuba — notably from Miami political leaders such as Sen. Marco Rubio — Seleski says his bank faced minimal blowback over their cooperation with the Castro regime.
"There's been very little pushback," he says. "Things have changed rapidly in our relationship with Cuba this year."