Executives see little progress on easing Cuba-U.S. financial services

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Multinational financial companies met on Friday with U.S. and Cuban officials to discuss making financial transactions between the two countries easier but reported no concrete signs of progress.

Speaking at a luncheon hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Central Bank of Cuba First Vice President Irma Martinez Castrillon said global financial institutions are afraid of facing U.S. sanctions for allowing money to move through Cuba. She said the financial sector has lagged other industries in embracing the thawing of relations between the United States and Cuba.

“In terms of policy and diplomacy, there has been great progress but in the financial sector there is a great deal of fear,” she said.

The luncheon, which was open to the press, followed a private "workshop" where the U.S. executives asked questions of U.S. and Cuban officials. Representatives from General Electric Co GE.N, Credit Suisse Group AG CSGN.S, Western Union Co WU.N and Visa Inc V.N were among the roughly 100 people in attendance at the luncheon.

“We frankly still see hesitance on the part of U.S. international banks” in processing financial transactions, said Mark Feierstein, a senior White House official who spoke at the lunch. Martinez Castrillon said there were more companies in attendance at Friday’s workshop than a similar one held recently in Cuba.

U.S. President Barack Obama loosened financial services restrictions with Cuba earlier this year, shortly before his historic visit to the island. But banks have been slow on the uptake, burned by past sanctions for breaking the embargo.

In October 2015, for example, U.S. regulators slapped Credit Agricole with a $787 million fine for violating sanctions against several countries including Cuba.

Only one bank, Stonegate, SGBK.O has so far issued U.S. credit cards that can be used in Cuba, so most American travelers bring wads of cash when they visit. Companies complain they cannot get credit to do business with Cuba.

Former U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, who has been leading efforts by the Chamber of Commerce to promote U.S.-Cuban business relations, cited “clarification” and “relationship-building,” as Friday’s major accomplishments.

Reporting by Dan Freed in New York; Editing by Cynthia Osterman