‘A Series of Razors Waiting to Cut You’: The High Cost of Doing Business in Cuba 2

The Hotel Inglaterra in Havana, one of the hotels in which Starwood is investing. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The Hotel Inglaterra in Havana, one of the hotels in which Starwood is investing. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

By Justin Rohrlich, Vice News

March 25, 2016 | 11:50 am

Sarkis Yacoubian swore he was just a businessman, but the state security agents holding him in a Havana interrogation room called him a spy.

It was July 2011, and Yacoubian, then 51, had been working in Cuba for nearly two decades. An Armenian-Canadian born in Beirut, he owned a trading company called Tri-Star Caribbean, which imported emergency vehicles, mining equipment, and auto parts for Cuba’s state-run industries.

About eight months before his arrest, Yacoubian says, a regime official visited Tri-Star’s Havana offices a handful of times — “Let’s call him ‘the Colonel,'” says Yacoubian, who claims not to recall the man’s name. The Colonel said that Cuba wanted to buy a fleet of BMWs, and asked Yacoubian to arrange it. The government’s wish list: sixteen 5-series sedans for the rental market and diplomatic use, and an armored X5 SUV for Cuban president Raul Castro’s personal motorcade. Yacoubian, knowing the contract could lead to many more, agreed to deliver the cars to Tecnotex, a state-owned conglomerate under the purview of the military run by Castro’s son-in-law, Colonel Luis Alberto Rodriguez.

The problems, however, started almost immediately. The government had previously been working with Eric Soulavy, a BMW dealer based in Venezuela who had run into financing problems. Yacoubian says a BMW rep got in touch with him and said that he needed to buy out Soulavy’s contract with BMW, which still had one year remaining. (A spokeswoman for the auto company said it does not comment “on the behavior of third parties as a matter of principle.”)

Yacoubian says he was at that point contractually obligated to deliver the vehicles to the Cubans, so with his “back to the wall,” he began negotiating with Soulavy. Yacoubian says they agreed to $800,000, with an initial transfer of $100,000. Soulavy, who is now a real-estate developer in Key Biscayne, Florida, says he doesn’t recall the exact amount he received from Yacoubian, but remembers charging him “something for the tools and parts we had invested in that business.”

Yacoubian says the buyers at Tecnotex were also asking him to take a $1,000 loss on each car, but “you don’t tell Raul Castro no.” Still, Yacoubian wasn’t doing the deal out of fear — he estimated the foothold the deal was gaining him could one day be worth up to $250 million.

Instead, he was accused of plotting to kill Castro.

Feature continues here: “A Series of Razors”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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How a Canadian Businessman Lost Everything in Cuba Reply

Sarkis Yacoubian

Sarkis Yacoubian

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.

Article continues here: Sarkis Yacoubian