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Next year in Havana, bring debit

Jay MacDonald

For decades, the customary New Years’ toast here in Florida has been, “Next year in Havana!”

While that heartfelt wish — typically offered up by Cuban expats hoping to one day repatriate to their homeland — has been getting closer to reality with the recent thaw between former Cold War foes, Cuba-bound visitors will now be able to use a U.S.-issued debit card next year in Havana.

Beginning in January, Pompano Beach, Florida-based Stonegate Bank will offer the first debit MasterCard accepted at Cuba’s 10,000 hotels, restaurants and shops, one small personal finance step in the giant leap toward rapprochement between longtime ideological foes.

For U.S. travelers, the Cuba card finally offers a secure payment alternative to what’s long been an inconvenient norm.

Dave Seleski, CEO, Stonebridge Bank

Dave Seleski, Stonegate CEO

“This is the first step in relieving the burden of U.S. travelers carrying cash when traveling to Cuba and another step in normalizing commercial relations between the two countries,” says Stonegate president and CEO Dave Seleski. “Hopefully more issuing banks will help this process by approving credit and debit cards as well.”

Speaking of cash, Cuba debit card carriers will still need to stuff a few Benjamins in their billfold, as the Cuba card won’t work at the island’s ATMs initially. Stonegate hopes to break down that wall in 2016.

The announcement follows a breakthrough year in which presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro agreed to end the Cold War estrangement between our nations. Toward that end, the U.S. lifted the ban that prohibited U.S. banks and credit cards from offering products and services in Cuba.

Last spring, MasterCard announced plans to process U.S. card transactions on the island. Jeff Wilson, who heads MasterCard’s GeoCentral Division, calls it a work in progress.

“As the infrastructure continues to develop on the island, this milestone reinforces a collective effort, starting with last spring’s trade mission, to deliver our cardholders a convenient and safe way to pay when traveling to Cuba,” he notes.

One sizable obstacle remains between a freshly SPFed Cuba debit card carrier and that cold Cuba Libre on Varadero Beach: You gotta get there first.

While U.S. tourism to Cuba is still officially prohibited, U.S. travel to the island was up 50 percent in the first six months this year, due in part to the 12 authorized categories that now allow travel without prior permission from the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control. You can step aboard new daily Cuban flights out of Tampa, Orlando, New Orleans and New York if the reason for your visit is related to family visits, educational or religious activities, official government business, journalistic activity, professional research or meetings, humanitarian causes, import or export business, public performances or professional or foundation research.

If you can get there, you’re allowed to return home with $400 in souvenirs and $100 in cigars and alcohol from Cuba.

Next year in Havana? Bring your debit card!

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