Tag Archives: Cuba-Canada Relations

Toronto Businessman Sarkis Yacoubian sentenced to 9 years in Cuba on corruption charges

Toronto man sentenced to 9 years in Cuba on corruption charges

thestar.com/ By: Julian Sher Investigative News reporter, Published on Wed Jun 19 2013

For almost two years as he sat in a Havana prison awaiting trial on corruption charges, North York businessman Sarkis Yacoubian held out hope that by collaborating with the Cuban authorities and fingering a wide web of foreign and domestic corporate intrigue, he would get some leniency.

“They are going to bring down my sentence, provided that I go along with them,” he had told the Star in a series of exclusive jailhouse phone interviews.

But that didn’t happen.

Three weeks after he was put on trial in late May, Yacoubian finally got word he has been sentenced to nine years in jail.

Sarkis Yacoubian

“We were shocked,” said Krikor Yacoubian, Sarkis’ brother in Toronto. “We were anticipating less with the collaboration, but they did not budge much.”

Krikor says his jailed brother was stunned when he first heard the news from his Cuban lawyer.

“He was silent for awhile, for a good minute,” he said. “Not tearful or angry. He said, ‘OK let’s go to the next step.’”

That next step, the family says, will be a protracted battle to try to get the 53-year-old Yacoubian transferred to Canada to serve out his sentence here.

“To my knowledge it is the first time that any Canadian businessman has been sentenced for corruption,” said John Kirk, a professor at Dalhousie University’s Department of Spanish and Latin American Studies who has written several books on Cuba.

“Clearly this is intended to send a message to Cubans and foreign investors alike,” he said. “Several deputy ministers in Cuba and dozens of bureaucrats have also received heavy sentences.”

Yacoubian’s cousin and business associate, a Lebanese citizen named Krikor Bayassalian, was sentenced to four years as a co-defendant, the family says.

The details of the key Canadian connection to Cuba’s widening corruption scandals were revealed last month in a joint investigation by the Toronto Star and El Nuevo Herald, the Spanish-language affiliate of the Miami Herald.

Arrested in July 2011 and detained without charges, Yacoubian – a McGill MBA graduate who operated a $30 million transport and trading company called Tri-Star Caribbean — was formally accused in April of bribery, tax evasion and “activities damaging to the economy.”

Yacoubian disputed many of the specifics of the case but he said he decided to cooperate with the Cubans, exposing what he called the “black forces” of corruption and naming more than a dozen foreign companies and executives.

“I told everything and I told how these schemes were done,” he told the Star. “It was just eating me alive. Maybe in my conscience I wanted my company to be brought down so that I could tell once for all things that are going on.”

In September 2011, Cuban authorities arrested a second GTA man –73-year-old Cy Tokmakjian, whose $80 million Tokmakjian Group company is one of the largest foreign operations in Cuba.

His family told the Star he has still not been charged.

Krikor Yacoubian says the family has decided not to appeal his brother’s sentence but to immediately start the lengthy legal and diplomatic manoeuvres to get Sarkis transferred to Canada under a prisoner transfer treaty Canada signed with Cuba in 1999.

“I don’t want my brother to rot in Cuba,” said Krikor Yacoubian.

 

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Canadian jailed in Havana corruption scandal speaks out

By Julian Sher of The Toronto Star And Juan O. Tamayo; Posted on Wednesday, 05.15.13

Speaking over a scratchy telephone line from inside a Cuban prison, Sarkis Yacoubian’s voice goes suddenly silent. He’s crying.

“I was so depressed at times, I wanted to commit suicide,” says the 53-year-old entrepreneur.

In exclusive interviews from the La Condesa prison, Yacoubian provides an insider’s view of a sweeping anti-corruption campaign by the government of Raúl Castro that has seen several foreign businessmen — including himself and another Toronto-area businessman — jailed.

A joint investigation by The Toronto Star and El Nuevo Herald has found that in a corruption-plagued country described in secret U.S. government cables as “a state on the take,” the two jailed Canadians are embroiled in a high-stakes diplomatic and legal stand-off between Havana and Ottawa, potentially jeopardizing millions in taxpayer dollars that underwrite Canada’s trade with Cuba.

Arrested in July 2011 and detained for nearly two years without charges, Yacoubian, who ran a transport and trading company, was finally handed a 63-page indictment last month accusing him of bribery, tax evasion and “activities damaging to the economy.”

Sarkis Yacoubian  from Toronto, is in prison near Havana awaiting trial on corruption-related charges.

A suspect who says he quickly pointed the finger at widespread wrongdoing by other Canadian and foreign businesses, Yacoubian now faces up to 12 years in prison after he pleads guilty at his trial set to begin next Thursday. The charges were filed in a special Havana court for Crimes against the Security of the State, which can effectively hold trials in secret.

“They found out this was an epidemic going all over the place and I was the fall guy,” says Yacoubian. “They want to give an example to the rest of the businessmen. They want to scare them to death.”

The second Canadian — 73-year-old Cy Tokmakjian who runs a global transportation firm called the Tokmakjian Group — was picked up by Cuban authorities in September 2011 and remains in jail with no specific charges filed against him.

“We’re as worried as anyone would be if their father is in a place where they shouldn’t be,” said his son and company president Raffi Tokmakjian in an interview at their corporate headquarters in Concord, Ontario.

Raffi and his two sisters say they are in daily phone contact with their father. “He worries more about us. He says: ‘You guys stay strong, I’m okay,’” said Anni Tokmakjian, the company’s director of sales. “We’re just focusing on getting him home, that’s all we really care about.”

But that might not be easy. The two entrepreneurs of Armenian origin, one-time business associates turned bitter rivals, ran multi-million dollar trading companies that sold heavy equipment, vehicles and supplies to Cuban state companies in the transport, construction, nickel and other industries.

Today, their Havana offices are shuttered, their fortunes frozen and their future in limbo.

Cuban authorities in Havana and at the country’s embassy in Ottawa declined to be interviewed for this story.

Complicating matters is that millions in Canadian taxpayer dollars funded by the Canadian Commercial Corporation (CCC) — a kind of broker that underwrites contracts between the Cuban government and select Canadian firms — may be at stake.

In 2011 and 2012, the CCC signed 38 contracts in Cuba worth more than $68.4 million, the latest in its $650-million business with Cuba since 1991. Much of that financial support — for privacy reasons, the agency won’t disclose its client list — went to back deals made with the Tokmakjian Group.

Now that Tokmakjian is in prison and the Cuban government has officially revoked his company’s license to operate, there are questions about what the Cubans will do if their courts rule that Tokmakjian contracts backed by the CCC were tainted by corruption.

The Tokmakjian Group is reported to be the second largest Canadian operation in Cuba, with at least $80 million in annual sales in the country.

Raffi Tokmakjian says his father “fell in love with the place” when he began investing in Cuba in the 1960s.

Yacoubian, too, had big dreams when he first came to Cuba in 1993. He quickly became fluent in Spanish and, after working briefly for Tokmakjian, he built his company, Tri-Star Caribbean, into a flourishing $30-million-a-year enterprise.

It all came crashing down when plainclothes security officers swept into his offices in Havana in July 2011.

Whisked away to a “safe house” for questioning and allowed outside for only one hour a day, Yacoubian says he slipped into desperation and depression. “I had lost my mind,” he says. “I was talking to myself, banging my head.”

Then Yacoubian made a fateful choice: He blew the whistle. “Maybe in my conscience I wanted my company to be brought down so that I could tell once for all things that are going on,” he says. “It was just eating me alive.”

He told his interrogators that he had little choice but to hand over money to bureaucrats or officials to secure contracts or even to ensure they were honored after winning a bid.

“If I didn’t pay, at the end of the day they would just create problems for me,” he says. Prosecutors allege in their court filing that Yacoubian or his employees bribed at least a dozen state officials with everything from nice dinners and prepaid phone cards to cash — $300 for a tip on a deal, $50,000 for a 2008 contract on earth movers.

Yacoubian disputes many of the details in the charges. But he says what bothered him was that some of the foreign businessmen were “bigger crooks” than the Cubans, profiting unduly from shady business dealings — often, he says, with support or subsidies from Western governments.

Yacoubian says he spent the next few months turning what could have been a police grilling of him into a kind of Corruption 101 class for his interrogators.

“I tried to explain to them systematically how things could be done,” he says. “I gave them drawings, designs. I gave them names, people, how they do it, why, when, where, what.”

Yacoubian did not know that his tell-all tale would become fodder for a campaign against corruption led by Raul Castro.

The Reuters news agency reported in February 2012 that Yacoubian’s videotaped confession was the centerpiece in a video titled “Metastasis” that describes payoffs and bribes “spreading like cancer” into high levels of the Cuban government.

In the video, shown only to top government and Communist Party officials, “Yacoubian confesses he passed packets of money to Cuban officials,” Reuters reported.

Tokmakjian is also featured and accused of corruption. His children say he firmly denies any wrongdoing, insisting there have been yearly audits of their business partnerships with the Cubans with “no issues.”

Tokmakjian and Yacoubian were eventually transferred to La Condesa, a prison reserved for foreigners and disgraced government officials — although the Canadians are kept apart in separate barracks.

The families of both men say they have received support from the Canadian embassy in Havana and assurances that Foreign Minister John Baird and Minister of State of Foreign Affairs Diane Ablonzy have pushed the Cubans “at the highest levels” to provide justice for the jailed Canadians “in a more timely matter.”

Close observers of Canadian business and political affairs in Havana say Ottawa and the CCC have to be concerned when a major player like Tokmakjian, backed by federal money, runs afoul of the Castro regime. Canada is one of Cuba’s largest trading partners and its single largest source of tourism revenue

One long-time Canadian investor with many years of experience in Havana, who asked to remain anonymous because of the uncertain political climate there, said “a lot of people” were frustrated that CCC was an exclusive club, most of its money being “eaten up by a handful of companies,” including the Tokmakjian Group.

For now, the CCC says it is not worried.

“The Corporation has consistently been paid by the Government of Cuba on time regardless of the external environment,” said Joanne Lostracco, the CCC’s manager of Government Relations.

Asked about the perils of a Canadian corporation operating in a Cuban economy tainted by corruption, Lostracco said the CCC has a “strong due diligence process” that imposes “full financial disclosure” on Canadian companies and allows the CCC to withdraw from any contract “obtained through illicit means.”

The Tokmakjian children remain optimistic their father will be home soon, taking heart from the fact that 10 other foreign employees of their company who were detained by Cuban authorities have been released in the past four months.

For his part, Yacoubian says he hopes to get a reduced sentence after he pleads guilty at his trial next week “because I collaborated closely” — a collaboration acknowledged by Cuban authorities in his indictment.

Yacoubian takes anti-depressants during the day and sleeping pills at night, but he says the poor ventilation in the stifling heat and the lack of chairs for his bad back are taking a toll.

Reflecting on the role he has played in unraveling Cuba’s corruption scandals, he has mixed emotions.

“It’s a victory because now, how things were done (in the past) has been unwrapped,” he says. But he also recalls the lyrics from a rock song that was popular when he and his family lived through the difficult years of civil war in Lebanon:

“Don’t be a hero,” Yacoubian says. “Heroes are so sad.”

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Canadian, British executives face corruption charges in Cuba

By Mark Frank, Havana — Reuters, Globe and Mail, May 15, 2013

Canadian and British executives of three foreign businesses shut in 2011 by Cuban authorities, ostensibly for corrupt practices, have been charged after more than a year in custody and are expected to go on trial soon, sources close to the cases told Reuters.

The arrests, part of a broad government campaign to stamp out corruption, sent shock-waves through Cuba’s small foreign business community where the companies were among the most visible players.

Until then, expulsions rather than imprisonment had been the norm for those accused of corrupt practices.

The charges against the executives involve various economic crimes and operating beyond the limits of their business licenses on the communist-run island, according to the sources, who asked to remain anonymous and who include a close relative of one of the defendants. Some of the foreigners are alleged to have paid bribes to officials in exchange for business opportunities.

Dozens of Cuban state purchasers and officials, including deputy ministers, already have been arrested and convicted in the investigation into the Cuban imports business that ensued.

Cuba has mounted a crackdown on corruption in recent years as part of a gradual reform process to open up the state-run economy to greater private sector activity. Under Cuban law, trials must begin within a month of charges being filed, though small delays are common and postponement can be sought by the defendants’ lawyers.

“There is definitely movement and the trials could begin soon,” a Western diplomat said.

The crackdown began in July 2011 with the closure of Canadian trading firm Tri-Star Caribbean and the arrest of its chief executive, Sarkis Yacoubian.

In September 2011, one of the most important Western trading firms in Cuba, Canada-based Tokmakjian Group, was also shut and its head, Cy Tokmakjian, taken into custody.

In October 2011, police closed the Havana offices of the British investment and trading firm Coral Capital Group Ltd and arrested chief executive Amado Fakhre, a Lebanese-born British citizen. Coral Capital’s chief operating officer, British citizen Stephen Purvis, was arrested in April 2012.

All four men are being held in La Condesa, a prison for foreigners just outside Havana, after being questioned for months in other locations.

A number of other foreigners and Cubans who worked for the companies remain free but cannot leave the island because they are considered witnesses in the cases.

Cuban officials and lawyers for the defendants could not be reached for comment.

The legal limbo of the foreign executives has put a strain on Cuba’s relations with their home countries, where the legal process protects suspects from lengthy incarceration without charges, diplomats told Reuters.

Cuba says the cases are being handled within the letter of Cuban law. Attorney General Dario Delgado told Reuters late last year that the investigation had proved complex and lengthy.

“These cases, which involve economic crimes, are very complicated. They do not involve, for example, traffic violations or a murder,” he said.

Comptroller General Gladys Bejerano has said the length of investigations depended on the behavior of those involved.

“When there is fraud, tricks and violations … false documents, false accounting … there is no transparency and the process becomes more complicated because a case must be documented with evidence before going to trial,” she said.

Transparency International, considered the world’s leading anti-graft watchdog, last rated Cuba 58 out of 178 countries in terms of tackling corruption, ahead of all but eight of 33 nations in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Soon after taking over for his ailing brother Fidel in 2008, President Raul Castro established the comptroller general’s office with a seat on the ruling Council of State, even as he began implementing market-oriented economic reforms.

The measure marked the start of the anti-corruption campaign. Since then, high-level graft has been uncovered in several key areas, from the cigar, nickel and communications industries, to food processing and civil aviation.

Rodrigo Malmierca, the minister of foreign commerce, last week delivered a report to the cabinet highlighting “irregularities” in foreign joint venture companies, according to state-run media.

Malmierca blamed “the lack of rigor, control and exigency” of the deals “as well as the conduct and attitudes of the officials implicated,” the reports said.

Castro has been less successful, however, in tackling low salaries and lack of transparency, which contribute to the problem, according to foreign diplomats and businessmen.

There is no open bidding in Cuba’s import-export sector and state purchasers who handle multimillion-dollar contracts earn anywhere from $50 to $100 per month.

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“The Ugly Canadians”: Sex Tourism in Cuba

I missed a March 2013 Toronto Star series on sex tourism in Cuba, but it was brought to my attention recently by Cristina Warren. (I am a Globe and Mail and The Economist aficionado.)  It was produced jointly by the Toronto Star and El Nuevo Herald, the Spanish-language sister publication of The Miami Herald and also by W5, an investigative television program on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation station. It is a disturbing examination of this phenomenon in the Cuban context.

Below are links to the articles in the series.

Toronto Star, Published Friday, March 15, 2013, Twisted Travellers: Canadian pedophiles travel Abroad for Child Sex,  by Victor Malarek, W5 (CBC) Chief Investigative Reporter

Toronto Star, March 15, 2013 Toronto sex offender could be first Canadian convicted of child sex tourism in Cuba. By  Jennifer Quinn Investigative News reporter, Robert Cribb Foreign, Investigations Julian Sher, Toronto Star

Toronto Star, March 16, 2013 Canadians are major customers in Cuba’s child sex market  By Robert Cribb Jennifer Quinn, Julian Sher Toronto Star, and Juan Tamayo El Nuevo Herald

Toronto Star, March 18, 2013,  Cuba’s most horrifying episode of child sex tourism resulted in a girl’s death by Juan Tamayo

Toronto Star, March 19,  2013 Editorial, Paradise for sex tourists

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“On Cuba, Canada has no choice but to walk Washington’s tightrope Add”

CARLO DADE /The Globe and Mail/February 20, 2013

The abridged Globe and Mail version is here:  “No choice but to walk Washington’s tightrope”

The complete unabridged version is presented below, courtesy of Carlo Dade.

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As hard as it may be to believe, one of the most difficult foreign files for any Canadian government to manage is the Cuba file.

The importance of Cuba, throughout the hemisphere is as a symbol. The country is of marginal, if any, economic interest and despite theatrics and histrionics by the Americans is not a real security threat to anyone in the hemisphere larger than say Grenada.

The importance of Cuba in the rest of the hemisphere is its presence as an open sore of a reminder of centuries of American bullying, humiliation and degradation. It is hard to overstate the degree of visceral anger that U.S. policy toward Cuba elicits in the region. Having run afoul of the United States Treasury’s Office of Foreign Asset Control, the agency in charge of enforcing the U.S. embargo, this writer can, to some degree, appreciate that anger. Cuba’s prominence also comes from the ease with which any Latin American government, even one of the few right of centre governments like Colombia, earns cheap points at home and with its neighbours to burnish its “el pueblo unido” credentials by kicking the United States without incurring any real cost; given U.S. history with the region the Americans can and will only protest so much.

With Canada things are markedly different. Cuba is important as a symbol of what distinguishes Canada from the United States. Most Canadians strongly disagree with U.S. policy toward Cuba and find it offensive, but instead of anger they are more embarrassed for their neighbour. While the U.S., on the other hand, sees no need to afford Canada the same leeway it affords Latin Americans on Cuba.

And that is where Canada begins to run into problems that its friends in Latin America miss.

Twice each year the U.S. embassy in Ottawa has to certify that Canada is, more or less, in compliance with the 1996 Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, also known as Helms-Burton. The gist of the exercise is to demonstrate that, despite clearly violating the intent if not the letter of Helms Burton, Canada is doing enough other things to push reform in Cuba to earn a pass from direct sanction by the U.S. The exercise is essentially a series of winks and nods on each side followed by a round of beers, mostly to assuage sore feelings on the Canadian side. And each year the State department and congress go along with this.

Canada has of course vociferously opposed Helms Burton, raised challenges under the NAFTA and adopted laws to counter it. In this it has international law and public opinion on its side. But should the Americans decide to take unilateral action that combination would prove as effective in defending Canadian interests on Cuba as it did on softwood lumber.

As has been seen time and again, all it takes is one member of congress such as one of the easily-riled congressional Cuban lobby, including the out-of-state gringos who raise substantial money in southern Florida, or one particularly well-placed congresswoman to raise a fuss and Canada is left with nothing but a wink and a nod to cover its privates while an Alberta clipper of U.S. unilateralism flaps around it.

Yes, cooler heads would prevail – eventually. But a lot of damage would be done in the meantime.

Not convinced? Well, since when have reason, common sense or self-interest been an insurance policy with any U.S. congress and with this one in particular?

The fine line that Canada walks on Cuba is an object lesson on the Faustian bargain that the country has struck to enable it to get rich and fat off of easy and privileged access to the U.S. market. Criticise the government if you will but what choice does Canada really have? Before answering think of the $1 billion in daily trade across the border or the neighbour who holds one of the one-in-seven jobs in Canada dependent on an open U.S. border.

Canada can, does and will have differences with the U.S. But is has to pick its fights carefully. Avoiding going to war in Iraq makes that list. Having Cuba attend a meeting for which it does not qualify does not.

Despite limited room for manoeuvre Canada has managed a robust policy of engagement with Cuba. This is a policy that has been and is clearly not an embrace of U.S. policy, but neither is it in line with the rest of Latin America.

Canada has a full-fledged aid program in the country that is carried out in consultation with the Cuban government. Canada invests and trades with the country is open to travel and will welcome Cuban athletes to Toronto for the next PanAm games. All without controversy or second thought.

But Canada also recognises that Cuba is dictatorship; something the rest of the hemisphere seems to have forgotten in its fit of pique with the U.S.

While Canada welcomes Cuban participation in hemispheric events, it draws the line at extending to it the same recognition and privileges as the rest of the democracies in the hemisphere; or, to put it more clearly, the rest of the non-dictatorial regimes in the hemisphere. To that point Cuba does not and will not get invited to a meeting the explicit purpose of which is to convene – democratically – elected heads of government. Doing so is as egregious a sin as the U.S. embargo against Cuba and would make a mockery of the decades long struggle against dictatorship in the hemisphere; a fight to which Canada has contributed much.

Looked at in comparison to the U.S. and Latin American positions, Canadian policy toward Cuba seems to have a monopoly on reason and common sense. Rather than apologise for this Canada needs to tell the rest of the hemisphere to knock off the cheap criticism and cut Canada some slack.

Carlo Dade is a senior fellow at the University of Ottawa’s School of International Development and former executive director of the Canadian Foundation for the Americas.

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“Canada should engage Cuba”

By Prof. Peter McKenna. Halifax Chronicle Herald

Original Here: “Canada should engage Cuba”

Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird should be commended for undertaking his current six-country tour of Latin America, including stops in Mexico, Peru and Venezuela. But it is his visit to Cuba that is the most interesting and significant.

Canadian-Cuban relations during the Harper years have suffered badly and, for too long, have been locked in an unproductive diplomatic holding pattern. To an outside observer, it has looked as if neo-conservative ideology, underscored by lethargy in the Foreign Affairs Department in Ottawa, has supplanted pragmatism and common sense.

One hopes, then, that Baird’s visit can help to unshackle the bilateral relationship and return it to a sense of normalcy and “constructive engagement.”

Indeed, we can’t on the one hand criticize the U.S. government for a failed Cuba policy (after 50 years of ineffective economic sanctions), and then side with the Americans on excluding Havana from the Summit of the Americas process. Nor should we mimic the U.S. approach of isolating Cuba simply because we don’t like the way it organizes itself politically and electorally.

Additionally, we should not forget that Cuba punches well above its weight within the wider region — having just assumed the leadership of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States. It has full diplomatic relations with almost every country in Latin America, and has hosted a slew of presidential visits over the last couple of years.

Equally important, more than 30,000 Cuban health professionals are working throughout the Americas and boosting Cuba’s hemispheric standing. Havana’s record on providing low-cost anti-retroviral drugs for HIV/AIDS sufferers in Latin America and the Caribbean is another feather in its cap.

Notwithstanding comments by former Cuban president Fidel Castro, who castigated Stephen Harper for the actions of Canadian mining companies that exploit struggling communities in many Latin American countries, the Canadian government should seek to strengthen its relationship with Havana.

The minister of state for Foreign Affairs, Diane Ablonczy, has already done some important work in this area. She has properly recognized that there are huge opportunities for Canada and Cuba to work constructively together on a wide range of issues, including trade, tourism, energy and people-to-people contacts.

Baird’s visit to Havana, if all goes well, could set the stage for a prime ministerial visit to Cuba — or a visit by a senior-ranking Cuban government official (Raúl Castro perhaps) to Ottawa in the near term.

But as former prime minister Jean Chretien found out during his own April 1998 visit to Cuba, it makes no sense to press the Cubans hard on the human-rights front or to attach certain conditions to a continued warming in bilateral relations. Yes, we should raise the issue of democratization and respect for political rights and freedoms; but if we hope to influence them, Baird should do so in a respectful and non-accusatory manner (and without any pre-conditions).

Having said that, we should not forget that Canada does have some cards to play with respect to the Cubans — not the least of which is over $1.5 billion in two-way trade. The number of Canadian tourists visiting the island has also grown to more than 900,000, another indication of how people-to-people exchanges between the two countries have grown exponentially since the mid-1990s.

Toronto-based Sherritt International Corp., which is involved in tourism development, iron-ore extraction and oil exploration, is the single largest foreign investor in the country. Simply put, Canada has had a long and storied relationship with Cuba, across a wide swath of policy areas, since 1959 (and was one of only two countries not to sever diplomatic relations with Havana in 1962).

Canada, then, could enhance its position and prestige in the wider hemisphere by standing up to the Americans on Cuba, and telling Washington to rescind its economic blockade and to remove any ridiculous references to Cuba as a terrorist-supporting country. It should inform Havana that it will be seeking Cuba’s presence at the next Americas summit, should there be one in Panama.

While most of what Fidel Castro said in mid-2012 can be ignored, he was right about highlighting the constructive engagement approach of former Canadian prime ministers Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chretien toward Cuba. In fact, we need to jettison the ideologically tinged rhetoric of the Harperites and focus on positive interaction, co-operative dialogue and growing our commercial exchange.

Baird’s visit, then, will not only send the right signals to the Cubans — especially if he handles the diplomacy with deftness — but it will also substantially increase Canada’s prestige and image throughout the wider Americas.

Peter McKenna is professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.

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Human rights should be an integral part of Canada’s Cuba policy

Human rights should be an integral part of Canada’s Cuba policy

February 19, 2013 By YVON GRENIER /TheChronicleHerald.ca

The Harper government has been distinctly forceful in its recent statements on human rights violations in the world. One peculiar exception to this rule has been Cuba.

After a few impromptu comments years ago by the former junior minister for the Americas, Peter Kent, on the dictatorial nature of the Cuban regime, our government (in particular, Mr. Kent’s successor, Diane Ablonczy) has issued nothing but optimistic comments on the “process of economic reform and liberalization in Cuba” (Ablonczy, January 2012).

And yet, my colleague Peter McKenna is worried that Foreign Minister John Baird may “press the Cubans hard on the human rights front” during his visit to Havana (re: “Canada should engage Cuba,” Feb. 16 opinion piece).

Prof. McKenna does not elaborate on the issue of human rights violation in Cuba, so let me quote Human Rights Watch: “Cuba remains the only country in Latin America that represses virtually all forms of political dissent.” As HRW documents in great detail, the Cuban government “enforces political conformity using harassment, invasive surveillance, threats of imprisonment, and travel restrictions.”

Human rights organizations in Cuba and abroad have reported an increase in the number of arbitrary detentions for political reasons over the past year (up to more than a thousand a month). Shouldn’t our government condemn that publicly, and depart from a long bipartisan policy of silence on Cuba? After all, we constantly issue statements about human rights violations abroad.

To mention a few examples, last fall, in addition to well-publicized statements on Iran and Syria, the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade issued statements to the effect that the government of Canada “has repeatedly called on the Belarusian authorities to uphold democratic principles, respect for human rights and the rule of law” (Sept. 25). It also urged “swift resolution of all outstanding issues” in Sudan and South Sudan, and proclaimed to be “deeply troubled by the reported Sept. 25 travel ban of former President Nasheed in Malé, Maldives” — this prompting Minister Baird to “directly raise the persecution of 19 other Maldives Democratic Party politicians and party officials to President Waheed today” (Sept. 28). Canada also stood “strong as a supporter of the Ukrainian people as they seek to build a nation based on democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law” (Oct. 2).

Why are we not using the same language on Cuba?

We are right to oppose the U.S. embargo (not a “blockade”), like most other countries on Earth: There is nothing distinctly Canadian in that policy. But the U.S. embargo is not the main obstacle to democratization in Cuba: The current Cuban regime is.

Here we can take Europe as a model. It has both diplomatic and commercial relations with Cuba, but it routinely speaks up against human rights violations on the island. The European parliament awarded the Sakharov human rights prize to two Cuban human rights activists (Oswaldo Paya in 2002 and Guillermo Farinas in 2010) and to the Ladies in White (2005), a group of women whose husbands are jailed in Cuba. The recent detention of another activist, dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez, was condemned by the EU, the U.S. and several Latin American governments. But not by Canada.

Cuba is the last dictatorship in the Americas, a region that is supposedly a foreign policy priority of this government. Canadians expect their government to be a leader in the human rights field. No exception.

Yvon Grenier is a professor of political science, St. Francis Xavier University.

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“Review of “The Politics of Canada-Cuba Relations: Emerging Possibilities and Diverse Challenges.”

H-Diplo Article Reviews  http://www.h-net.org/~diplo/reviews/  No. 383

Published on 31 January 2013

H-Diplo Article Review Editors: Thomas Maddux and Diane N. Labrosse

 URL: http://www.h-net.org/~diplo/reviews/PDF/AR383.pdf

Review by Asa McKercher, Trinity Hall, Cambridge

Lana Wylie, ed. “The Politics of Canada-Cuba Relations: Emerging Possibilities and Diverse Challenges.” Canadian Foreign Policy Journal 16:1 (2010): 55-178. “Special Section – The Politics of Canada-Cuba Relations: Emerging Possibilities and Diverse Challenges”

Table of Contents

“Partie Spéciale – La politique des relations Canada-Cuba : Options émergents et défis”

Introduction: Lana Wyle, “Shifting Ground: Considering the New Realities in the Canadian-Cuban Relationship”

Calum McNeil, “To Engage or not to Engage: An (A)ffective Argument in Favor of a Policy of Engagement with Cuba”

Julia Sagebien and Paolo Spaldoni, “The Truth about Cuba?”

Luis René Fernández Tabío, “Canadian-Cuban Economic Relations: The Recognition and Respect of Difference”

Archibald R.M. Ritter, “Canada’s Economic Relations with Cuba, 1990 to 2010 and Beyond”

Heather N. Nicol, “Canada-Cuba Relations: An Ambivalent Media and Policy”

Peter McKenna and John M. Kirk, “Evaluating ‘Constructive Engagement’”

Raúl Rodríguez Rodríguez, “Canada and the Cuban Revolution: Defining the Rules of Engagement 1959-1962”

Trudeau and Castro in Havana, 1976

 Introduction:

In early January 2012, Diane Ablonczy, the Canadian Minister of State for Latin America, travelled to Cuba for her first official visit to the island. In contrast to her party’s longstanding position on Cuba, Ablonczy – one of the more conservative Conservatives – went, not to lecture Cuba on human rights, but to talk business, a softening of Ottawa’s attitude on a thorny issue and a volte-face seen also in recent Canadian policy toward China. At the same time as Ablonczy set off for Havana, Canadians of all sorts were beginning their annual trek from their wintry homeland to Cuba’s sunny shores. Indeed, benefitting from their country’s stance of maintaining open diplomatic and economic relations with Cuba, over one million Canadians were expected to make the trip.1 Yet all was not well with Canadian-Cuban relations that year. In April, on the front page of Granma, Fidel Castro delivered a withering attack on Canada both for the environmental damage wrought by Canadian companies overseas and for Ottawa’s seeming support of London over the Falkland Islands. A week later, at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Stephen Harper, Canada’s prime minister, sided with Barack Obama in blocking an attempt by Latin American nations to invite Cuba to the next summit meeting.2 As these instances show, relations between Ottawa and Havana can be oddly ambivalent. Still, such ups and downs are reflective of a normal state-to-state relationship, one that stands in stark contrast to the hostility between Havana and Washington.

To assess the Canadian-Cuban relationship, Lana Wylie, a professor at McMaster University who over the last few years has done much to deepen understanding of the Canada-Cuba dyad, has brought together a diverse group of scholars for a special issue of the Canadian Foreign Policy Journal examining “The Politics of Canada-Cuba Relations: Emerging Possibilities and Diverse Challenges”.3 As Wylie explains in her introduction, in light of changes on the island – Raul Castro’s assumption of the presidency and his resulting reforms – and the prospect of a softening of U.S. policy under President Barack Obama, there is a need for such an examination. The contributors, who range from academic stalwarts – John Kirk, Peter McKenna and Arch Ritter – to, importantly, Cuban scholars – Raúl Rodríguez and Luis René Fernández Tabío – provide perceptive prognostications, interesting insights, and prudent prescriptions about the relationship between Canada and Cuba.

Concluding comment…

Disagreements between Canada and Cuba – on human rights, the Falklands, free trade – have not resulted in the sundering of normal relations, nor are there any signs that they will. Engagement between the two countries, constructive or not, thankfully continues, as does the very valuable people-to-people contact between Canadians and Cubans. The contributions to this collection are an excellent example of the benefits of academic exchange between Canadians and Cubans, and scholars and policymakers interested in the bilateral relationship between these two countries will be well-served by reading them.

Fidel Castro at the Funeral of Pierre Trudeau, September 2000

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Canadian diplomats spied on Cuba for CIA in aftermath of missile crisis: envoy

From the Globe and Mail,  October 16, 2012

In a little-known chapter of the Cold War, Canadian diplomats spied for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in Cuba in the aftermath of the 1962 missile crisis – and for years afterward.

A major part of that story is told in a forthcoming memoir by retired Canadian envoy John Graham. Mr. Graham was one of a series of Canadian diplomats recruited to spy for the CIA in Havana. The missions went on for at least seven years, during the 1960s. “We didn’t have a military attaché in the Canadian embassy,” explained Mr. Graham, who worked under the cover of Political Officer. “And to send one at the time might have raised questions. So it was decided to make our purpose less visible.”

Mr. Graham said he worked as a spy for two years, between 1962 and 1964. His mandate was to visit Soviet bases, identify weapons and electronic equipment and monitor troop movements. The espionage missions began after President John Kennedy asked Prime Minister Lester Pearson – at their May, 1963, summit in Hyannis Port, Mass. – whether Canada would abet American intelligence-gathering efforts in Cuba. As a result of the crisis, which brought the superpowers to the brink of nuclear war, the Soviets had agreed to withdraw nuclear missiles from Cuban territory, in exchange for Washington’s pledge to remove its own missile batteries from Turkey and Italy.

To monitor Russian compliance, the United States needed to supplement data gleaned from almost daily U-2 reconnaissance flights. It had few assets on the ground. Its networks of Cuban agents had been progressively rolled up by Castro’s efficient counterintelligence service. And having severed diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961, it had no embassy of its own through which to infiltrate American spies. Soon after the summit meeting, Ottawa sent diplomat George Cowley to Havana. Now deceased, Mr. Cowley, who had served in the Canadian embassy in Japan and sold encyclopedias in Africa, spent about two months in Havana in the late spring of 1963.

He was followed by Mr. Graham, seconded from his post as chargé d’affaires in the Dominican Republic. His formal training, he told The Globe and Mail, was minimal – a few days at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. At the end of it, an agency officer offered him a farewell gift – a sophisticated camera with an assortment of telephoto lenses. He declined the present, arguing that if he were ever caught with it, he’d surely be arrested.

“But how will we know what the Soviet military convoys are carrying?” a CIA officer asked him. “We need precision. Configuration is essential for recognition.”

“I’ll draw you pictures,” Mr. Graham said. “It was a bit like the character in Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, but that’s what I did.”

In the Greene novel, an inept salesman, recruited to spy for Britain, sends illustrations of vacuum cleaner parts to his handler, calling them drawings of a military installation.

Mr. Graham’s sketches, however, were the real thing. To get them to Canada, he flew to Mexico City – the only regional air connection – and deposited the drawings at the Canadian embassy. From there, they were dispatched by diplomatic courier to Ottawa. Copies were subsequently sent to the CIA and, Mr. Graham later heard, to the Kennedy White House.

Read the complete article here: Canadian diplomats spied on Cuba for CIA in aftermath of missile crisis:

John Graham, 2012

 

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Foreign Business in Cuba: Beware the Dangerous Embrace: Havana is at the same time attracting and terrifying entrepreneurs

by Nancy Macdonald and Gabriela Perdomo

Original Article is located here: Maclean’s Magazine, August 8, 2012

Until this spring, Stephen Purvis had it all. The British architect, who’d helped launch the Saratoga, Cuba’s poshest hotel, was one of the more prominent figures in Havana’s business community. As chief operating officer of Coral Capital, one of Cuba’s biggest private investors, he was overseeing a planned $500-million resort in the sleepy fishing village of Guanabo. The Bellomonte resort, which would allow foreigners to buy Cuban property for the first time, was part of Havana’s ambitious, multi-billion-dollar plan to attract high-end tourists and badly needed foreign exchange. Everything he touched seemed to turn to gold. The musical Purvis produced in his spare time, Havana Rakatan, had a run at the Sydney Opera House last year before moving on to London’s West End. But in April, the 51-year-old was arrested on suspicion of corruption as he prepared to walk his kids to school in Havana.

Purvis’s arrest could have been anticipated. Coral Capital’s British-born CEO, Amado Fakhre, has been held without charges ever since his arrest in a dawn raid last fall. The investment firm is being liquidated, and both men have faced questioning at Villa Marista, Cuba’s notorious counter-intelligence headquarters. They are not alone. Since last summer, dozens of senior Cuban managers and foreign executives, including two Canadians, have been jailed in an investigation that has shocked and terrified foreigners who do business in the country.

Since replacing his brother Fidel as president in 2008, Raúl Castro has painted himself as a reformer, and Cuba as a place where foreign businesses can thrive. Over the last year, he has relaxed property rights, expanded land leases and licensed a broad, if random, list of businesses—everything from pizza joints to private gyms. And he’s endorsed joint venture golf courses, marinas and new manufacturing projects. Canadians are chief among those heeding Raúl’s call to do business with Havana. Hundreds have expressed interest in the Cuban market in the last year alone, according to Canada’s Trade Commissioner Service. Flattering reports in Canadian media have praised Raúl’s efforts. Yet they seem to overlook troubling signs that Cuba appears to be moving backwards.

Raúl’s sweeping changes were meant to pave the way for massive foreign investment in Cuba. The country, which was forced to lay off 20 per cent of its public workforce last year, is barely as developed as Haiti, and will need an influx of foreign cash to stay afloat. There is urgency to the project. Time is running out for Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, Cuba’s benefactor, who funds the country to the tune of $10 billion a year, says José Azel, a University of Miami research associate. At home, Chávez, who is sick with cancer, is also fighting off a tough challenge from Henrique Capriles in presidential elections slated for October. His successor will almost certainly cut Cuba’s generous aid package to deal with Venezuela’s own needs.

So a strange incongruity exists in Cuba today: Havana is bending over backwards to attract foreign currency at the same time it is imprisoning some of its biggest Western investors. For all Cuba’s reforms, this Castro appears to be as intent on maintaining an iron grip on the country as the last one.

Few are more keenly aware of the pitfalls of doing business in the new Cuba as a pair of Canadians sitting in jail in Havana. It has been more than a year since Sarkis Yacoubian, the president of Tri-Star Caribbean, a trading firm with headquarters in Nova Scotia, was detained in the Cuban capital. And September will be the one-year anniversary of the arrest of Cy Tokmakjian, the president of a trading company based in Concord, Ont. He and Yacoubian have both been imprisoned without charges. Their assets now belong to Cuba. No trial date has been announced.

Both Yacoubian and Tokmakjian ran well-established businesses in Cuba, had years of experience in the country, and multi-million-dollar contracts with several government ministries. Yacoubian imported the presidential fleet of BMWs. Tokmakjian, who’d been in Cuba for more than 20 years and did $80 million in annual business there, had the rights to Hyundai and Suzuki, which are used by the country’s police.

So far, Raúl has scared off more joint ventures than he has attracted, jeopardizing the investment Cuba needs to succeed. Spanish oil giant Repsol quit the country in May. Canada’s Pizza Nova, which had six Cuban locations, packed its bags, as did Telecom Italia. The country’s biggest citrus exporter, BM Group, backed by Israeli investors, is gone. A Chilean who set up one of Cuba’s first joint enterprises, a fruit juice company, fled after being charged with corruption last year. He was convicted in absentia. Shipping investors are pulling out, even as Cuba prepares to open a new terminal on the island’s north coast.

Experts say Raúl’s crackdown is an attempt to reassert control. By targeting the biggest names in the business community, he’s sending a message, says Azel. “Raúl doesn’t want to be Gorbachev,” the Soviet statesman who brought down Communism in the former Soviet Union. “He wants to be the guy who makes socialism work.”

Yet as detentions pile up it remains unclear what exactly the jailed Canadians and Britons have done, or what the regime means by clamping down on corruption. “Cuba’s version of what is legal and proper is different from the rest of the world,” says Ted Henken, president of the Washington-based Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy. Even sales commissions are viewed as corrupt, says Yoani Sánchez, a Havana-based journalist. Foreign companies can’t pay their Cuban employees any more than the standard wage, about $20 a month, says Sánchez—barely enough for two weeks’ living in poor conditions with a poor diet. Many foreign bosses routinely top up pay with bonuses and commissions, which Havana considers bribery. For years, says Henken, corruption was the grease that made wheels turns. “You got what you needed to live from what was thrown off the back of the truck.”

It is not clear whether the detained Canadians are facing charges for salary top-ups, for example, or for legitimate corruption allegations. Canada’s Foreign Affairs department would only confirm that “consular services are being provided to two Canadian citizens detained in Cuba.” Executives at Tri-Star Caribbean and members of the Tokmakjian family declined comment, citing the “extremely sensitive” nature of the situation.

Azel’s advice to potential Canadian investors? Stay away. “You’re defenceless. There’s no independent judiciary to adjudicate any kind of claim,” he says. “Doing business with Cuba is a very risky proposition.”

So then why all the new resorts and planned golf courses? Why do so many Brits and Canadians take the personal and business risk? Because it’s widely believed that the days are numbered for the U.S. travel ban on Cuba, which has barred Americans from visiting the island for almost three decades. Predictions for tourism growth are off the charts—up to six million annual visitors, from two million today, says Gregory Biniowsky, a Canadian consultant who’s lived in Cuba for two decades. Cuba’s boosters believe the country, with its vast, undeveloped white sand beaches, just 45 minutes by plane from Florida, could come to rival Jamaica or the Dominican Republic as a tourist draw. “It’s just a matter of time before things boom here,” says Biniowsky. Five billion barrels of oil lie under Cuba’s waters, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. To some, getting in on the ground floor is worth the risk. But foreign investors who lose sight of the dangers could find themselves in serious trouble.

The old Royal Bank of Canada Building in Havana. The interior of the building is below.

Photos by Arch Ritter, April 2012

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