By Jeff Gray, The Globe and Mail [Canada]
Canadian businessman Sarkis Yacoubian only knew his Cuban interrogator – the Cubans call them “instructors” – as Major Carlito. When they first met in the dim basement of the Havana house where security agents had initially imprisoned Mr. Yacoubian in July, 2011, he says Major Carlito greeted him by grabbing his own crotch.
“If you are expecting that the Canadian embassy is going to come to your help, this is what they are going to get,” Mr. Yacoubian, 54, says his captor warned him. Then, he says, Major Carlito accused him of being a spy, an accusation that would eventually be abandoned before the Canadian was convicted by a Cuban court of corruption charges and expelled last year.
His story, and that of Toronto-area businessman Cy Tokmakjian, who was released from incarceration in Cuba last month after a similar corruption trial, are cautionary tales for would-be investors in Cuba.
However, some say the historic Dec. 17 announcement of Canada-brokered talks to normalize Cuba’s relations with the United States – plus recent moves by leader Raul Castro to liberalize the economy – still has Canadian investors and entrepreneurs interested in the Communist-ruled island.
Despite Major Carlito’s threat, the Canadian embassy did closely monitor’s Mr. Yacoubian’s status as he spent two years in jail before facing any formal charge. And the ambassador attended Mr. Yacoubian’s 2013 trial, which saw him sentenced to nine years in prison and fined $7-million for corruption, tax evasion and doing “economic damage” to Cuba.
Mr. Tokmakjian, 74, spent more than three years in prison. Two of his Canadian employees who had been blocked from leaving Cuba were also recently freed. His Concord, Ont.-based Tokmakjian Group reportedly had a $90-million-a-year business on the island importing vehicles and construction equipment. His assets in Cuba were seized. Mr. Yacoubian, a former employee of Mr. Tokmakjian’s who broke away from his boss to build what he said was a $20-million-a-year business in Cuba bringing in similar products, says all of his assets on the island were also seized.
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