US sanctions on Cuba saw Irish woman’s holiday bank transfer vanish

Money moving from PTSB to credit union fell foul of controls during visit to Caribbean island

An Irish woman who tried to transfer money from her Irish bank account to her Irish credit union while on holidays in Cuba last summer was left mystified when her cash was frozen by an overseas bank over fears the transaction breached US-imposed sanctions on the Caribbean island.

Alby Sheehan was in Cuba during the summer when she attempted to move a relatively small amount of money from her PTSB current account to her credit union.

Even though the transfer was not large she was “worried [it] would be held up” if she didn’t give an explanation to her bank and, with her mobile phone not working in Cuba, she knew she would not receive any calls from her Irish bank.

“So I put ‘Cuba savings’ in the description box,” she said.

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The online transfer happened on August 4th but Ms Sheehan’s money simply disappeared. “When I contacted the credit union, they had no record of it while my own bank, PTSB, denied any issues.”

She spent several months trying to establish what had happened to no avail. After questions were submitted to the bank by The Irish Times about Ms Sheehan’s case at the end of November, the money was returned to her account.

A spokeswoman for PTSB apologised for the delay in returning the money and said she had become tangled in the international sanction regime against Cuba which imposes “quite onerous and complex requirements on financial institutions to monitor and, where appropriate, investigate transactions (domestic and international) to ensure they are not in breach of any relevant sanctions”.

A trade embargo was imposed on Cuba by the US under the presidency of John F Kennedy and has been in place for over 60 years. Former US president Barack Obama relaxed some restrictions but they were tightened by his successor Donald Trump.

On 30 occasions over recent decades the United Nations has repeatedly backed a non-binding resolution opposing the sanctions with 185 countries, including Ireland voting against them as recently as last month.

The PTSB spokeswoman said that there had been “seven new waves of sanctions released in the last year alone with which banks are required to comply”.

She told The Irish Times that “from time to time this results in a transaction being paused for review where to many people it may appear to be innocuous. In this case we are satisfied that while the transaction was perfectly legitimate, it was understandable that it was identified as requiring review”.

The spokeswoman accepted that in the case of Ms Sheehan “the investigation of a paused transaction took way too long and was not satisfactory” adding that it was “an extremely rare occurrence and not typical of the service that we provide.”

Conor Pope

Conor Pope

Conor Pope is Consumer Affairs Correspondent, Pricewatch Editor