Must-Read: Armenian-Canadian Businessmen Lose Millions in Totalitarian Cuba

Thursday, October 30, 2014
By Vilen Khlgatyan of the Political Developments Research Center (PDRC):

Money Trumps Morality: Armenian-Canadian Businessmen Invest and Lose Millions in Totalitarian Cuba

Late last month the regime of Raúl Castro sentenced a Canadian businessman of Armenian origin, Cy Tokmakjian to 15 years in prison on corruption-related charges. The sentence follows a three-year ordeal which began as part of a wider campaign targeting foreign investors in Cuba by the Castro regime. Cuba follows the Soviet model slavishly, including the treatment of foreign investors. On the one hand, they are wooed for their money and know-how, on the other scapegoated for their crimes – real and imagined – in an eerie tropical morality play straight from the USSR’s New Economic Policy (NEP) of the 1920s. Tokmakjian was arrested in September of 2011, only two months after another Canadian businessman of Armenian origin, Sarkis Yacoubian, had been arrested. Cy heads the Tokmakjian Group, which is an Ontario-based automotive firm. Prior to its closure in Cuba it was one of the largest foreign companies to have operated on the Communist island over the past 20 years. Through the sale of construction and mining equipment, as well as being the exclusive Hyundai distributor in Cuba, the company took in roughly $80 million per annum. This sum made it the second largest Canadian operation in Cuba. It all came crashing down on that September day in 2011 when agents of the Cuban State Security seized and shut down the local headquarters. Predictably, the regime confiscated the company’s assets which were worth over $100 million.

Fashioned after the Soviet NEP, the Cuban regime under Raúl has been carefully crafting an imaginary economic liberalization that includes major “reforms” such as stamping out corruption. The early Soviets ran a seminal disinformation operation to induce Westerners and some Russian exiles to successfully promote foreign investment in the USSR. The Soviets, who always intended this state capitalism as a temporary measure to improve the economy, later arrested many investors known as the NEP-men on trumped-up charges and confiscated their investments without recourse.

After nearly three years of detention without formal charges leveled against him, the official newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party (CCP), Granma, reported that Tokmakjian was accused of corruption to obtain benefits in contract negotiations, unauthorized financial transactions, illegally taking large amounts of money out of the country, falsifying documents to avoid taxes and payroll irregularities. Cy Tokmakjian and his family who help run the business back in Canada deny any wrong doing. His lawyers made the decision to appeal the verdict in Cuba’s Supreme Court. Concurrently, Canadian MP Peter Kent, whose district includes the Tokmakjian Group’s headquarters, has warned other businessmen with projects in Cuba to be careful. Curiously, the New York Times is now forcefully advocating for the lifting of the U.S. embargo evidently so that American investors can seize the same “opportunities” as Mr. Tokmakjian.

Sarkis Yacoubian, the other Canadian-Armenian businessman targeted by the Cuban regime, started out as Tokmakjian’s junior partner before creating his own company. Yacoubian’s Tri-Star Caribbean, a transport and trading company developed into a burgeoning $30 million a year business. Regime officials accused Yacoubian of bribery, tax evasion and “activities damaging to the economy.” Unlike Tokmakjian though, Yacoubian decided to cooperate with his captors and provided them the ins and outs of how foreigners conduct business in Cuba. This may be the reason why he was expelled from a Cuban prison this past February and does not have to finish the rest of his nine-year sentence in a Canadian penal institution.

A practical as well as patriotic question arises. Why were Tokmakjian and Yacoubian investing millions of dollars in one of the most corrupt and totalitarian regimes in the world, whilst their ancestral home is in dire need of investments from the Diaspora and foreign businessmen in general? All the hazards, real and imagined, of doing business in Armenia pale in comparison to the hoops and hurdles with which one is confronted in order to succeed in the Cuban business environment. Armenia is under a Turkish and Azerbaijani embargo over which it has no control. Cuba, in contrast, faces only a unilateral American embargo that would end, or at least ease, were the regime to accept the timeless principle that all men are created equal and all deserve to be ruled by a government of their own choosing. In the meantime, any country in the world can and does invest in Cuba helping to prop up a regime that does not respect the rights of its own citizens. It can hardly be expected that this regime will somehow respect the rights of foreign investors. In fact, it would behoove Armenian and other investors to understand that Cuba’s NEP is just an elaborate deception operation. They will soon be victimized one way or another.

The Tokmakjian family released a statement following Cy’s conviction in which they write that since the beginning of their father’s legal ordeal in Cuba, he has been “denied the most fundamental human and civil rights recognized under both Canadian and international law.” What they failed to mention is that the Cuban judicial system is a mockery of law and order.  Any disinterested party could have warned them that investing in Cuba is fraught with pitfalls. When Tokmakjian was doing business in Cuba, making profits, and everything was peachy he willingly ignored the myriad misdeeds of the Castro regime. Investing in Cuba bankrolls the regime by providing much-needed hard currency to support secret police operations and other repressive forces. It propagandizes the illusion of a legitimate place of business. Additionally, the Cuban military leadership controls foreign investment and the Cuban employees of those businesses. This has allowed them to siphon millions of dollars for themselves while paying Cuban workers a pittance.

The moral question in all this is why two individuals who are the descendants of genocide survivors, whose ancestors and fellow Armenians lost property running into the hundreds of billions of dollars at the hands of the Ottoman Empire and now the Republic of Turkey, would invest in a totalitarian state like Cuba. A state which also has profited handsomely from the wholesale murder, looting, and usurpation of properties and other assets once owned by Cubans from all walks of life. It should be noted here that thousands of Armenians found refuge in an ethnically diverse Cuba after the Genocide. In a repeat of history, Armenians were forced to flee their adopted Cuban homeland as the Communist regime still in power today arrested their friends, executed their neighbors and confiscated their properties. If Armenians wish for non-Armenians to take our pain and suffering seriously, if we wish for non-Armenians to join with us in our drive to reclaim our lost properties, then as a community we must condemn any and all activities which profit from the suffering of others.  Hypocrisy is not an option.