Tag Archives: Cuba-Canada Relations


CIPS-logo2By Stephen Baranyi, Professor, School of International Development and Global Studies, University of Ottawa, and Chair, Latin America and Caribbean Study Group of the Canadian International Council’s National Capital Branch.

See the original at: http://cips.uottawa.ca/what-should-canada-do-about-cubas-participation-in-the-americas-summit/#sthash.RUA0hXpt.dpuf This commentary reflects the public remarks and off-the-record

discussion with officials at the forum on Cuba, the 2015 Americas Summit, and Beyond: Obstacles and Opportunities, which was co-sponsored by CIPS on September 4, 2014.

Most Latin American and Caribbean states have indicated they will not attend the Americas Summit planned by Panama for April 2015 unless Cuba is invited. Canada and the United States have expressed reservations about Cuba’s participation on the grounds that it would gravely weaken the Inter-American Democratic Charter. Yet neither Ottawa nor Washington can afford to see the summit fail. In an age of emerging regional powers and increasing involvement by external heavyweights like China, North Americans are rightly concerned about being left on the margins of new hemispheric relationships.

From the moment it joined the OAS in 1989, Canada has made the protection and promotion of democracy a cornerstone of its hemispheric engagement. This commitment informed Canada’s hosting of the Americas Summit in Quebec and engagement in helping negotiate the Inter-American Democratic Charter, as well as the Harper government’s current Americas Strategy. Ottawa played a key role in drafting the Democracy Clause of the Quebec Declaration, which states that

 “any unconstitutional alteration or interruption of the democratic order in a state of the hemisphere constitutes an insurmountable obstacle to the participation of that state’s government in the Summits of the Americas process.”

Recognition of the different and often difficult paths to democracy provides an opening for productive dialogue, even between ideological foes, on ways of assisting Cuba in its construction of more democratic institutions. While Ottawa has maintained respectful relations with Havana since 1959, it definitely sees the Cuban regime as not meeting the standards of liberal democracy codified in the Democratic Charter. On that basis, it is understandable that Ottawa does not favour moves that might lower the bar on democracy in the region—at the summit or in other Inter-American fora.

Yet Canada does not wish to be left out in the cold, especially if Washington decides to go along with the majority view on Cuba’s participation. The Inter-American system, with the OAS at its centre, remains important because those are the only hemispheric institutions which include Canada as a full member (unlike the new Latin American and Caribbean Community (CELAC). Saving the Americas Summit is thus part of safeguarding Canada’s presence in the hemisphere. The tricky part is finding a way to save the summit and enabling Cuba to participate, without compromising Charter norms.

How might Canada contribute to that outcome?

First, Ottawa could see Cuba’s participation in the Americas Summit as a confidence-building measure rather than as a clear dilution of Inter-American democratic norms. Cuba’s participation in the Panama Summit would move it further along the path to reincorporation opened up at the San Pedro Sula General Assembly of the OAS in 2009. Yet it would not nullify the need for many other steps, by Havana and others, before Cuba could become a full member of the Inter-American system. As such, for Canada there would be little cost (and some possible benefits) in accepting Cuba’s participation in the Panama Summit.

Second, Ottawa could quietly support the construction of a summit agenda around a less controversial theme, such as the cooperative management of migration flows. Panama is not the place to reopen the Democratic Charter, with Cuba in the spotlight. Yet Ottawa could support a lower-profile discussion elsewhere on ways of breathing fresh life into the Charter.

The publications around the 10th anniversary of the Charter in 2011 (including the work of Canadian scholars like Maxwell Cameron and Thomas Legler) generated many ideas for strengthening the application of the Charter. Those range from compendia of best practices to the establishment of a special rapporteur on democracy. That conversation might interest Cuba and its allies, if it is broadened to include a consideration of how the participatory and substantive dimensions of democracy could be enhanced—as a complement to the mostly liberal, procedural dimensions codified in the Charter. This is complex and it will take time, much longer than the months leading up to the Panama Summit.

It will require adaptation in Cuba but also a considerable degree of conceptual and operational innovation on the OAS side. For those who think that the Harper government is unlikely to support that approach, let me cite the words of Foreign Minister Baird at the OAS General Assembly a few months ago. “Democracy”, he noted in Asunción, “is a journey, not a destination. There is no single outcome. Every democracy will look a little different, coming from a different set of experiences and from a different journey.”

This recognition of the different and often difficult paths to democracy provides an opening for productive dialogue, even between ideological foes, on ways of assisting Cuba in its construction of more democratic institutions. That could be timely, given the creation of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD), which merges the democracy promotion and development mandates into one department.

Finally (and probably also quietly, since Ottawa has learned that megaphone diplomacy does not work on this file), Canada could continue supporting home-grown democratic development through technical cooperation with Cuban institutions. This could be done by supporting greater citizen participation in municipal governance; funding Cuban (quasi) civil society organizations working to enhance tolerance of diversity and the peaceful management of disputes; and backing Cuban researchers exploring ways to promote more governmental accountability.

Several Canadian non-governmental organizations are already engaged in such initiatives. More could be done to expand those efforts over the coming years, on the safe assumption that they will converge with internal processes such as generational change, as well as with the renewal of democratic norms in hemispheric fora.

See more at: http://cips.uottawa.ca/what-should-canada-do-about-cubas-participation-in-the-americas-summit/#sthash.TO8hwHTb.dpuf

000477_baranyi1-e1365429847141Stephen Baranyi


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Mariela Castro in Ottawa: “I believe in the project Cuba is developing”

The Ottawa Citizen, Jennifer Campbell Published on: July 8, 2014

Mariela Castro Espín is a Cuban professor and member of Parliament. She was in Ottawa recently before attending Toronto's World Pride 2014.Mariela Castro Espín, Heir Apparent in the Castro Dynasty? But she states that Cuba does not have a “monarchy.”

Ask the daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro what it was like growing up with such a famous father and she’s quick to answer that being his daughter “is not a public position.”

Mariela Castro Espín, a professor and member of the Cuban parliament since 2013, says it with a laugh, but she does want to stress that she doesn’t always share her father’s opinions, nor does he dictate the way she votes on policy.

“I have responsibilities and I don’t like to be classified as the president’s daughter,” she says. “Ever since I’ve been a child, I’ve always said what I thought. I’m a part of my family and they have given me certain social values, the same values of Cuban society.”

For example, her brand of socialism is one where “humans organize themselves according to state policy.”  She believes, she says, “in the rights of the people to participate in public policy discussions and I believe in the project Cuba is developing, of experimenting to create a new society with the primary goal of emancipating the human being. I don’t think of it as a socialist model. I think instead of an experiment to discover more fair societies as an alternative to the capitalist system. No one has the right to tell Cuba to copy other models.”

Asked if it seems right for one family to be in power for decades, Castro Espín called the question “propaganda” and insisted that her country doesn’t have a “monarchy.”  Rather, she says, Cuba has “a democratic system of participation. I invite you to go to the Cuban election to see for yourself. It’s the population (that elects) and promotes the candidates. They are humble people, who are working as politicians solely because they are interested in helping the Cuban people.”

In other countries, she says, it’s those who have the biggest war chests who get elected, but Cuba is free of that problem.

Castro Espín admits Cuba still has a way to go, and to that end she’s been working with municipalities and universities to strengthen governance and improve people’s ability to make more effective changes at a local level.

When it comes to Cuba’s large neighbour to the North, Castro Espín says there are many in her country who would like to “normalize” relations with the U.S. but the will isn’t there on the part of American officials.

Castro Espín was in Canada to participate in World Pride 2014 in Toronto, so Cuban Ambassador Julio Antonio Garmendia Pena invited her to Ottawa as well.

“Maybe I can change some ideas among MPs and others who are interested in my work as the head of CENESEX (the Cuban National Centre for Sex Education),” a centre that advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. “I think I will have to come back because they showed a lot of interest.”

She said gay rights advocates are making headway. Her centre, and other groups, are fighting for gay marriage and the right for gay couples to adopt children. “At least we’re having the conversation,” she said, adding that there are still many Cubans opposed to both.


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CyCy Tokmakjian

DANIEL TROTTA; HAVANA — Reuters; Jun. 30 2014  

Cuban prosecutors are seeking a 15-year prison term for a Canadian businessman who has been tried on bribery charges, and 20 years for Cuba’s former deputy sugar minister who is accused in the same case, official media reported on Monday. Prosecutors are also seeking a total of $91-million in fines or forfeitures from three Canadians and 14 Cubans in a case that has been closely watched by potential investors wary of how Cuba treats foreign executives.

Lead Canadian defendant Cy Tokmakjian, 74, was held for nearly 2 1/2 years before being charged.

Cuba has been touting a new foreign investment law that took effect Saturday, saying it was crucial for attracting foreign direct investment that’s needed for development. The main feature of the law is to lower taxes. But many foreign companies have said they are more interested in the general business climate, transparency and the rule of law, especially in light of this case.

Cuban authorities publicly revealed details of the trial for the first time with an account in Monday’s edition of the Communist Party daily, Granma, which said the evidence phase of the trial lasted from June 9-21 at a criminal court in Havana. The court has yet to reach a verdict, which is normally rendered within a few weeks of trial.

Diplomats with knowledge of the case have previously said that prosecutors were seeking 15 years for Tokmakjian and 12-year sentences for his top managers, fellow Canadians Claudio Vetere and Marco Puche. All three Canadians from the Tokmakjian Group, a transportation and trading company, say they are innocent, but its vice-president of finance, Lee Hacker, has previously said in a statement he feared the outcome of the case, which has strained Canada’s relations with Cuba, may be predetermined.

Cuba shuttered the Canadian company in September, 2011, arrested Tokmakjian and took the passports of the other managers. The charges include bribery, fraud, tax evasion, falsifying bank documents and other economic offences.

Granma said prosecutors were asking for 15 years for Tokmakjian and 20 years for Nelson Labrada, former deputy minister of the defunct Sugar Ministry, which has since been replaced by a state sugar enterprise. Prosecutors requested sentences of eight to 12 years for the remaining defendants.

Among the Cuban defendants is Ernesto Gomez, former director of the state nickel company Ferroniquel Minera SA.

The Ontario-based Tokmakjian Group did an estimated $80-million in business annually with Cuba, mainly selling transportation, mining and construction equipment. It was the exclusive Cuba distributor of Hyundai, among other brands, and a partner in two joint ventures replacing the motors of Soviet-era transportation equipment.

The company was caught up in an investigation of Cuba’s international trading sector, part of a crackdown on corruption by President Raul Castro

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Canadian Parliament Member Warns Cuba Investors

A businessman from his district has been jailed in Havana for 3 1/3 years without trial, says Peter Kent.

By Juan O. Tamayo, El Nuevo Herald,

A senior Canadian parliament member has taken a punch at Cuba’s new foreign investment law, saying that one of his constituents has been jailed on the island since 2011 without trial and has been offered leniency if he pays questionable debts.

“The international financial community should ponder long and hard the investment blandishments of Cuban ministers, diplomats and trade officials,” said Peter Kent, chairman of the House of Commons Defense Committee.

“Reality is at stark odds with the platitudes” of those officials, Kent added, going on to detail the case of his constituent, Cy Tokmakjian, one of several foreign businessmen jailed in Cuba on what they say are fraudulent corruption charges.

Tokmakjian, 73, a Canadian citizen of Lebanese descent, is president of Tokmakjian Group, at one point the second largest Canadian firm operating in Cuba. He has been jailed since Sept. 10, 2011 for investigation by Interior Ministry officials.

Kent described the ministry as modeled on the Soviet KGB and East German STASI security services. He also noted that all of the other jailed businessmen come from Canada and Europe — not Cuban allies such as China, Venezuela or Russia.


Cy Tokmakjian

Tokmakjian’s assets in Cuba, worth more than $90 million, have been frozen and “it seems no coincidence” that the total value of the government’s claims against him exceeds that amount, Kent wrote in a column published Tuesday in the Huffington Post.

“There have been suggestions to company representatives that additional millions sent from Canada could result in a more ‘lenient’ outcome,” he added. “He has been told, many times, that, if he drops International claims against Cuba or admits to minor ‘offenses,’ he would have a lenient trial and be released immediately.”

Tokmakjian has repeatedly denied all the allegations against him, which include bribery and tax evasion. Kent said the businessman is ready to defend his case vigorously in a Cuban court.

Kent said that when he visited Cuba in 2010 as Minister of State for Foreign Affairs in charge of the Americas, Tokmakjian “was characterized as a valued partner by Cuban interlocutors.” The Canadian company largely sold imported vehicles to the island’s government.

The parliament member also noted that among the foreign investors who lost millions in Cuba when they came under suspicion of corruption were Briton Stephen Purvis, who was working to develop a golf course, and Frenchman Jean Louis Autret, who ran a string of bakeries and other businesses.

Another Canadian businessman, Sarkis Yacoubian, was expelled from Cuba in February after serving about one third of a nine-year sentence. He was arrested in July 2011 and was convicted in April 2013 of bribery, tax evasion and “activities damaging to the economy.”

Yacoubian, who ran a $30 million trading company in Cuba, Tri-Star Caribbean, told the Toronto Star newspaper that he had cooperated with investigators and hoped to receive a lenient sentence. Cuban officials never explained his expulsion.

He and Tokmakjian were imprisoned at La Condesa, a facility on the outskirts of Havana reserved for foreigners and important Cuban government officials.

Peter KentPeter Kent

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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.


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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