Risky business in Cuba
Peter Foster: Risky business in Cuba
Peter Foster | September 30, 2014 6:45 PM ET
More from Peter Foster
After forty years of ‘constructive engagement’ with Cuba,
government-backed Canadian investment has effectively propped up the regime
The Canadian government has for three years asked the Cuban authorities
either to lay charges against Canadian businessman Cy Tokmakjian or
release him. Unfortunately they got their wish last week, when the
74-year old was tried and sentenced behind closed doors to fifteen years
The conviction appears outrageous, as does the sentencing for shorter
periods of two of his executives, Claudio Vetere and Marco Puche. But
the affair raises many questions. Did Mr. Tokmakjian not realize he was
operating in a corrupt system that could turn on him at any time? Did he
see himself as an agent of change? Was he naïve? To what degree were his
Cuban operations financed by the Canadian government? Is such financing
Businessmen should be allowed to risk their capital wherever they want.
Investment in Cuba, as in China and Russia, is also often presented as a
subtle way of undermining repressive regimes, but it is clear now, after
forty years of “constructive engagement” that government-backed Canadian
investment has effectively propped up the regime.
The days have long gone when the Cuban regime can blame the U.S. embargo
for the endlessly dismal state of its economy, but the loosening of the
U.S. embargo has resulted in as little reform as has investment from
Tokmakjian Group is a classic story of Canadian immigrant success.
Starting with servicing diesel engines, Mr. Tokmakjian, an Armenian
immigrant, moved into transit and shuttle bus services both in Canada
and abroad. In Cuba, where he set up shop more than 20 years ago, his
company distributed Hyundai vehicles and equipment, along with other
types of mining equipment.
Mr. Tokmakjian was swept up in a move against “corruption” when Raul
Castro took over from his ailing brother Fidel in 2011.
Earlier this year, another Canadian businessman, Sarkis Yacoubian, who
was arrested before Mr. Tokmakjian, was expelled from Cuba one year into
a nine year sentence. The circumstances are unclear but Mr. Yacoubian
reportedly “cooperated” with the Cuban authorities, and may not only
have played a part in fingering Mr. Tokmakjian, but in unleashing the
whole anti-corruption campaign.
We assume that there is lots of quiet diplomacy taking place on Mr.
Tokmakjian’s behalf. According to government spokesman John Babcock, “We
continue to follow this case closely and remain actively engaged at
senior levels. Consular officials continue to provide assistance to Mr.
Tokmakjian and his family.” Somewhat bland, but grandstanding can be
dangerous when one of your nationals is in jail under a barbaric regime.
That makes it all the more puzzling why Canada remains one of that
barbaric regime’s major aid donors and trading partners.
Some still naively – or self-interestedly – claim that Canadians have an
“advantage” in Cuba because they are not American. That apparently
includes Marc Whittingham, the head of the Canadian Commercial Corp., a
shadowy Crown Corporation that specializes in state-to-state deals in
areas such as armaments, and which may have provided finance to
Tokmakjian Group. He reportedly told a Cuban audience that Canada had
also been invaded by the U.S., in 1812, and had responded by burning
down the White House. In other words, “We’re all anti-American here.”
The section on Cuba on the website of the Department of Foreign Affairs,
Trade and Development is a masterpiece of pussyfooting. It notes that
“The Government of Cuba has acknowledged that its centralized political
structure poses a barrier to economic productivity.” I guess
“centralized political structure” is more diplomatic than “corrupt
According to the document, “Cuba needs assistance in developing modern
business practices and increasing accountability and transparency of
public institutions.” In fact, Havana has zero interest in increasing
accountability and transparency, and modern business practices require
the rule of law. The Tokmakjian Group’s mission statement stresses
“respect, honesty and integrity,” three virtues that could not be more
antithetical to a regime whose only priority is to maintain power.
It is almost sickening to read the Canadian government congratulate the
island Gulag for meeting targets on “universal primary education;
promoting gender equality and empowering women; and reducing child
mortality.” Even worse is the declaration that “The country is on track
to meet the targets for eradicating extreme poverty and hunger” when it
is the Castro regime that has created extreme poverty and hunger in the
The most obvious explanation for arresting Mr. Tokmakjian was simply to
seize his business. Communist regimes have never needed lessons in
theft, but in this case Vladimir Putin’s expropriation of Yukos might
have been a model, since “Putinismo” is seen in Cuba as a possible
transition from the disaster of Communism to crony statism. Clearly the
fact that an international arbitration court ordered Russia to pay
former Yukos shareholders $50 billion didn’t deter Cuba. Nevertheless,
Tokmakjian Group has launched a $200 million lawsuit against the Cuban
Mr. Putin may have thoughts about reestablishing the links with Cuba
that were severed when the Soviet empire collapsed. Venezuela’s Hugo
Chavez, for whom Fidel was a role model, eventually took up the slack of
subsidizing the Cuban economy with cheap oil, but Venezuela too is now a
basket case, so the return of Russia may be timely if the Castros are to
continue their geriatric chokehold.
None of this is good news for foreign investors, for whom Mr.
Tokmakjian’s experience is a warning. Let’s hope quiet diplomacy works
soon in his case, but let’s also stop taxpayer backing for Cuban trade
and investment. And let’s hope all those Canadian tourists who flock to
Cuba every year give a passing thought to what their dollars are supporting.
Source: Peter Foster: Risky business in Cuba | Financial Post –