Toronto Star: Cuba Being Ungrateful for Canada's Trade and Tourism

Tuesday, September 30, 2014
From The Toronto Star's Editorial Board:

Jailing Canadian investors can only hurt Cuba’s economy

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government should publicly decry Cuba’s jailing of a Canadian businessman, and lobby to have him released.

Cy Tokmakjian is a Canadian who has been doing business in Cuba for more than 20 years. All that time Fidel Castro and the government hailed him as a valued partner in developing the island’s feeble economy. His transportation, construction and mining equipment firm was one of the country’s biggest foreign investors, with $100 million in assets there.

Yet suddenly, in 2011, President Raúl Castro’s anti-corruption prosecutors set their sights on Tokmakjian and charged him and 16 others. After what his Concord-based company describes as a deeply flawed trial Tokmakjian, 74, has just been sentenced to 15 years behind bars, and the company’s assets have been seized. Two of his Canadian managers were jailed for 12 and eight years. And 14 Cubans including senior officials got up to 20 years.

Conservative MP Peter Kent calls the proceedings a “travesty of justice” and the sentence “outrageous.” The company says the trial was conducted largely in secret, and maintains that allegations of bribery, tax evasion, currency trafficking and other wrongdoing could easily have been refuted. But the defense was barred from calling expert witnesses. And defense lawyers got only limited access to state evidence. This appears to have fallen short of any credible standard.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government should publicly decry this outcome and lobby to have Tokmakjian released and sent home as other Canadian and foreign businessmen have been in the past. He has been held for three years and is in frail health. His associates should be freed as well.

But the message should also go out that Canadians expect better of Cuba. Despite a 52-year American embargo we have consistently traded with Cuba and vacationed there. Last year Canada was Cuba’s fourth-largest trading partner after Venezuela, the entire European Union and China. We did nearly $1 billion in two-way trade. This is a poor recompense.

Finally the Castro regime should be put on notice that this can only cast a chill on its ambitious push to attract $2.5 billion annually in foreign investment to pump up its small, anemic economy. Havana urgently needs major investment in agriculture, tourism, infrastructure, light industry, energy, mining and other productive sectors. That may prove harder to attract now.

A country that Transparency International says is seen as seriously corrupt isn’t doing itself any favors by hauling in long-time foreign investors on dubious charges, holding less than credible trials, imposing harsh jail terms and seizing assets. If it is open season on Canadians, anyone is fair game. There are safer places to make a buck.