Tag Archives: Cuba-Canada Relations

CANADA’S INFLUENCE IN CUBA COULD WANE

by Dr. Peter McKenna

The Ottawa Citizen; Published on January 2, 2015

Original here: “Influence”

fidel castro3

It’s not surprising that Canadians were at the centre of trying to foster some sort of rapprochement between Washington and Havana. In fact, we’ve been trying to play the role of intermediary between the U.S. and Cuban governments for over 50 years.

Let’s remember that Canada has been viewed as a useful interlocutor because of our amicable relations with both Cuba and the United States. In short, we’ve had the crucial ingredient of trust in the eyes of the two governments.

According to some U.S. officials, Canada’s involvement in the most recent secret talks was nothing short of “indispensable.” We were undoubtedly the bridge that was needed to bring the two sides together.

As we look ahead, though, what will a U.S.-Cuba reconciliation mean for the future of Canada-Cuba relations? Will it weaken or strengthen the historical linkages between the two countries? Will we be able to use our uninterrupted relations with Cuba to gain special dispensation or favours from Havana going forward?

For the Cubans, Canada was one of only two countries in the Americas (the other being Mexico) not to sever diplomatic relations with Revolutionary Cuba in 1962. Since 1959, Canada has embraced a Cuba policy of dialogue, commercial exchange and principled engagement — which was highlighted by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s 1976 visit to the country and Jean Chrétien’s difficult meetings in Havana with Fidel Castro in April of 1998.

Though relations between Canada and Cuba have not always been smooth or cordial (witness Ottawa’s refusal to invite Cuba to the Quebec City Summit of the Americas in 2001), neither side has deemed it necessary to shut down the channels of diplomatic communication. And the Cubans understand full well that the Canadians — who have been long-standing critics of the U.S. embargo against Cuba since the early 1960s — were not going to stab them in the back.

Canada, unlike the U.S., has been careful over the decades not to allow human rights considerations to impede bilateral relations with the Cubans. Official Ottawa has known for some time that hostility toward, and isolation of, Cuba has exhibited few tangible results.

castro_and_michelFidel with Margaret and Michel Trudeau, Michel not impressed!

For our American friends, we had “street cred” because Canadian officials in Cuba have been sharing with them intelligence on the country for over 50 years. They also knew that the Canadians have wanted the same things in Cuba as them since 1959 — political liberalization, respect for basic human rights and an open economy — while differing sharply on the means of securing those policy objectives.

It’s worth mentioning, though, that the normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations could have both positive and negative implications for Canada. We may very well benefit from seeing greater demand in Cuba for additional infrastructure projects (trading on our good name as long-time friends), investment opportunities in certain specialized sectors (like oil and mineral development along with financial and banking services) and from sharing Canadian expertise on tourism management.

But these recent developments could negatively impact Canada in terms of its own commercial relationship with Cuba (which exceeds $1 billion annually in two-way trade). While Canadian companies are highly regarded on the island, they could easily get squeezed out by their American competitors. As a result, we could eventually see a sharp decline in trade and investment dollars between Canada and Cuba.

In addition, a good part of Canada’s influence in Cuba is tied to Havana’s completely dysfunctional relationship with Washington. But as U.S.-Cuban relations take on greater importance, Canada’s leverage is likely to wane.

Still, this role of facilitator is precisely the kind of niche diplomacy that Canada should be conducting around the world — and thus Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Foreign Minister John Baird deserve a pat on the back. But we need to be vigilant here about making sure that both Havana and Washington don’t allow the enemies of normalization, and there are many, to undermine our outstanding efforts to date.

Peter McKenna is professor and chair of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island and the co-author of Canada-Cuba Relations: The Other Good Neighbor Policy.

UN-MILLENNIUM SUMMIT-CANADA/CUBA Fidel, perhaps listening?

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CANADIAN EXPAT TELLS OF CUBA’S EUPHORIA AFTER U.S. ‘GAME CHANGER’

TAVIA GRANT

The Globe and Mail, Friday, Dec. 19 2014, 8:03 PM EST

Original article: EUPHORIA

This week is not one Gregory Biniowsky will ever forget. The Canadian lawyer has lived in Havana for 23 years, a place where hope has regularly ebbed and flowed on expectations the United States would restore relations with the Caribbean island.

Change was always just around the corner. But it never materialized. Until Wednesday.

It was an “enormous” surprise when President Barack Obama announced the United States would normalize relations with Cuba, Mr. Biniowsky said.

Outside his home in Old Havana, church bells rang out and people cheered as Cuban President Raul Castro made his own simultaneous live broadcast confirming that three of the famed Cuban Five prisoners were released and that the two countries will renew diplomatic relations after 53 years of hostility.

Friends celebrated, some wept. Mr. Biniowsky described the mood in Cuba as euphoric.

The significance of the dramatic announcement go beyond relations between the U.S. and its much smaller next-door neighbour. Smoothing ties with Cuba will improve U.S. ties with Latin America as a whole, a region that long urged the U.S. to end its trade embargo. And it will have ripple effects on Canada’s long-standing relationship with the island, opening up both business opportunities and more competition, along with big changes in a favoured Canadian holiday destination.

“Across the political spectrum, from stalwart supporters of the Cuban revolution to intelligent opponents of the system, everybody is very happy,” Mr. Biniowsky said in a phone interview. “It’s not difficult to pick up on the extreme significance of it.”

The prospect of a lifting of the U.S. embargo on Cuba, he added, is a “game changer.”

Most poignant of all for him was hearing that Canada played a role in the fence-mending by hosting most of the secret talks over the past 18 months.

“Our government, regardless of who’s in power, has maintained a really honourable, constructive, intelligent policy towards Cuba. And the Cubans know that,” said Mr. Biniowsky, an international consultant who has advised the Canadian embassy and the United Nations in areas such as business, investment and social-impact projects.

The news made him “proud to be a Canadian,” he says, for “staying true to the tradition of being an honest broker.”

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U.S. and Cuban flags hang from a balcony in Old Havana yesterday. ‘Everybody is very happy,’ said Canadian expat Gregory Biniowsky.

While it will take congressional approval to end the trade embargo, Mr. Obama is pulling all the levers at his disposal to free aspects of trade and travel, including – in a key confidence-building move for foreign investors – plans to take Cuba off the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.

International visitors, many of them Canadian, certainly love cheap vacations and the charm of a place where time seems to have stood still, a country free of malls and McDonald’s, where 1950s cars still cruise and Internet access is sparse and roads are still potholed.

But the reality is that Cuba’s economy is stuck. It’s hard to aspire to a better life in a country with little access to credit, convertible currencies and foreign investment. Foreign investors have shied away from the communist-run nation, not just because of its red tape, one-side legal dispute system and state-heavy approach but also for fear of U.S. reprisals. This has made it difficult to, for example, expand ports and roads or improve obsolete industrial plants or telecommunications services.

“It creates a condition of a country that can’t grow, because everything grows on credit and investment,” said Julia Sagebien, associate professor at Dalhousie University who was born in Cuba and has studied the island’s economy since 1994. She said she is “extraordinarily happy” over the changes. On her last trip in May, after four years of advising Cuba on economic reform and areas such as social enterprises and Canadian co-operative models, she was set to throw in the towel. The economy was “starting to freeze again,” she said, and only the lifting of the embargo could really get it going. Now “the patient in the coma has finally woken up,” she said. “The real rehabilitation comes now.”

Cuba is an attractive market. It’s the biggest island in the Caribbean with the largest population, at 11.2 million people. It has fertile land, a growing bio-pharma industry, thousands of new micro-enterprises and miles of beaches. And Cubans are justifiably proud of the country’s achievements with a well-educated population, long life expectancy and low crime rates. The huge income disparities visible through much of Latin America are absent in Cuba, though that has started to change with shifts in the economy, meagre public-sector wages and the growth of private businesses such as hair salons and cellphone repair shops.

Prof. Sagebien sees opportunities for Canadians – particularly in the next year before U.S. investors move in – in sectors such as infrastructure, agricultural inputs like fertilizer, equipment and parts, paper pulp, energy, mining, commercial banking and tourism. (Most U.S. citizens will still be prohibited from visiting Cuba, unless they have Cuban relatives or fit other categories including education and humanitarian workers.)

Canada and Cuba have long and colourful history. Relations date to the 1700s, when Atlantic schooners traded salt cod and potatoes for rum and sugar. Cuba was the first country in the Caribbean where Canada established a diplomatic mission and official relations began in 1945, according to the federal government’s website. Canada and Mexico were the only two countries in the hemisphere that never broke trade relations with the island. Former prime minister Pierre Trudeau struck a friendship with Fidel Castro and visited the nation in 1976. Cuba’s annual Terry Fox Run has become the world’s largest outside of Canada. The two countries retain close academic ties. And Cuba is among the top three destinations for Canadian tourists. Canada is, by far, Cuba’s largest source of tourists with more than a million visitors a year.

Mr. Biniowsky figures the U.S. will lift the travel ban ahead of the trade embargo, which could in turn double the number of tourists to the island to about six million people. That will juice the economy. And, he added, “who is going to be doing all the airport expansions, marinas, hotels and infrastructure? Well, Canadians, Europeans, Latin Americans, everyone else except for the United States. So we’ll have an interesting situation where the Cuban economy will begin to really heat up before the embargo is lifted because the travel ban will have been lifted.”

The Canadian tourism industry already sees a pick up in business in year ahead. Cuba Cruise, a new Canadian company that runs cruises that circle the island, and aim to give visitors a sense of the “Real Cuba,” said it expects increased bookings in the short term from international travellers. “eager to explore a country that is virtually free of American commercialization and chock full with charm before it might change.”

Once big U.S. cruise companies and tour operators jockey their way into the island, the picture is less clear, according to Dugald Wells, president and chief executive of Cuba Cruise. “What the competitive landscape is going to look like a year from now, that’s up to the politicians,” he said, adding that it’s with a bit of trepidation that we go forward.”

“There’s change in the air,” said Mr. Biniowsky. He cautioned that Cuba is not the easiest place to do business, but that it holds much promise. Canadians “need to get in now, position ourselves, create relations with the Cubans now, because the clock is really beginning to tick.”

He is optimistic about the future – even though it may mean growing throngs outside his house. “It will be a bit too touristy for me, and Cuba will lose a bit of its charm, because part of its charm is the lack of massive amounts of tourists. I don’t think Cubans are ready because of their infrastructure … so it’s going to be maybe a bit of a rough transition. But it’s good for the country, it’s hard currency for them.

“Let’s see how the Cubans manage – hopeful there won’t be a McDonald’s in old Havana, but we’ll see.”

grec

Gregory Biniowsky

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Sagebien & Spadoni: TWO ARTICLES ON THE IMPACTS OF US-CUBA NORMALIZATION ON CANADAIAN BUSINESS WITH CUBA

Below are links to two articles by Julia Sagebien and Paulo Spadoni on the impacts of US-Cuba normalization on Canadian business relations with Cuba.

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O CANADA, WILL CUBA STAND ON GUARD FOR THEE? PREPARING FOR THE END OF THE US EMBARGO ON CUBA       

       Attachment Here: SagebienSpadoni TIBR

 New Picture (1)

WILL THEY STILL LOVE US TOMORROW? CANADA-CUBA BUSINESS RELATIONS AND THE END OF THE CUBAN EMBARGO

Attachment here: SagebienSpadoni CanadaCuba Ivey

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RECIPROCITY AND RENT-SEEKING: A STUDY OF THE PARTNERSHIP APPROACH TO DEVELOPMENT ASSISTANCE (A Canada-Cuba Case Analysis)

[I just stumbled again upon this excellent analysis of the Carleton University- Universidad de la Habana Partnership program of 1995-2002, written by my colleague Frances Woolley. It is of broad interest to those interested in development assistance generally and of particular interest to those interested in Cuba. It is a fine article that seems to have slipped under the radar of many analysts of Cuba. I am therefore publishing it again here.  A.R.]

Canadian Journal of Development Studies / Revue canadienne d’études du développement , Volume 23, Issue 2, 2002

Dr. Frances Woolley,  Department of Economics and Associate Dean, Faculty of Public Affairs, Carleton University, Canada

Complete article available here: Frances Woolley, Cuba-Canada Reciprocityand Rent-Seeking 2002 CJDSABSTRACT Under the partnership approach to development assistance, donor agencies fund partnerships between donor-country and host-country institutions. This paper develops a model of development assistance in which project participants attempt to extract rents from donor agencies. The model is applied to an academic exchange between Carleton University and the University of Havana. The behaviour of project participants is rational given the constraints and incentives they face, yet individually rational responses can undermine collective reciprocity and jeopardize both partners’ goals for development assistance. The paper concludes that structural and ideological issues may be easier to account for than personal needs and power.

New Picture (1)untitledFrances Woolley

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WHAT SHOULD CANADA DO ABOUT CUBA’S PARTICIPATION IN THE AMERICAS SUMMIT?

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

CIPS_Blog_Small

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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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CUBAN PROSECUTORS SEEK 15 YEARS FOR CANADIAN BUSINESSMAN IN BRIBERY CASE

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.

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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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