Cuba protests PriceSmart's suspension of memberships in Jamaica

KINGSTON, April 11 Fri Apr 11, 2014 8:31pm EDT

KINGSTON, April 11 (Reuters) - Cuba is protesting the decision by PriceSmart Inc, a major U.S.-based bulk-shopping warehouse, to suspend memberships of shoppers from the communist country at its Jamaica subsidiary, Cuban officials said on Friday.

PriceSmart took the action this week, citing the decades-old U.S. embargo on Cuba that prohibits economic relations between the two countries, Cuban officials say.

PriceSmart did not respond to a request for comment, and has declined to tell the Jamaican media why it suspended the memberships at this time.

Jamaica is increasingly popular with Cuban shoppers, and Havana lifted restrictions on travel last year, allowing wealthier Cubans to leave the country on shopping trips abroad.

One diplomatic source familiar with Cuba said PriceSmart may have suspected large-scale purchases were being made on behalf of Cuban government contractors, a potential embargo violation.

PriceSmart, based in San Diego, California, is the largest operator of membership warehouse clubs in Central America and the Caribbean, with 32 stores serving more than 1 million cardholders in those regions and South America.

The company told Jamaican media it will only reinstate memberships for Cuban embassy staff and citizens who can provide proof of permanent residency in Jamaica.

"It's a U.S. company, and their subsidiaries cannot sell to Cuba," said Susan Kaufman Purcell, director of the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami.

Jamaica's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade is trying to broker a resolution between PriceSmart and the Cuban embassy, according to local media. Ministry officials could not be reached immediately for comment.

The U.S. embargo on Cuba has been in place more than 50 years. The Obama administration has begun to soften restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba, but normalized relations are still a ways off.

Cuban ambassador to Jamaica Bernardo Guanche Hernández, quoted in Jamaican media, condemned PriceSmart's membership suspension move, calling it "criminal" and adding that repeated United Nations resolutions have called for an end to the embargo.

Cuban officials declined to comment publicly on the matter to Reuters but complained privately that the PriceSmart issue was a sign that the Obama administration continues to tightly enforce the embargo.

The ambassador also suggested the action was a violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

The Vienna Convention protects diplomats against persecution by a host country, but "this is not persecution by the host country," said Purcell. "This is a subsidiary of a U.S. company." (Additional reporting by David Adams Editing by Kevin Gray, Richard Chang and Ken Wills)