HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuban President Raul Castro’s full-court press on corruption has gone the local equivalent of viral, as videos with bribery confessions by foreign and Cuban businessmen make the rounds of the communist-run island’s state companies.
The videos shown to senior staff and party members are the latest addition to an ongoing campaign to root out corrupt practices that have landed a handful of foreign businessmen and hundreds of government officials behind bars.
Security is tight at the screenings, where all personal belongings are left at the door in hopes of keeping the footage off YouTube and Miami television.
One video traces a network of farmers, state distributors and officials as they fleece the government out of millions of pesos through the sale of fictitious onions and garlic.
Another video, called “Metastasis,” follows a Canadian trading company’s payoffs “spreading like cancer” into high levels of government.
Castro established a comptroller general’s office in 2008, with a seat on the Council of State, even as Cuba began implementing market-oriented reforms.
The measure marked the start of the campaign to tamp down corruption and reflected concern over graft that followed similar reforms in other communist countries, foreign and local experts said.
Over the last few years, high-level corruption has been uncovered in one sector of the economy after another, from the cigar and communications industries, to food processing and civil aviation.
“Metastasis” opens with footage of Castro warning that corruption must be kept at one’s ankles and never be allowed to rise above one’s nose. It closes with Castro characterizing corruption as a threat to national security, according to several sources familiar with the video.
Cy Tokmakjian, CEO of the Canadian Tokmakjian Group, who was arrested last year, is portrayed as the original cancer cell.
Tokmakjian is fingered by former associate turned competitor, Sarkis Yacoubian, the CEO of another Canadian firm closed in July 2011, and who is also in custody.
Yacoubian confesses he passed packets of money to Cuban officials visiting Canada when he worked for the Tokmakjian Group, the sources said.
Yacoubian says he continued passing around cash-stuffed-envelopes after he founded Tri-Star Caribbean to compete with his former employer for Cuba’s automobile, motorized and heavy equipment market.
The two companies did an estimated $110 million in annual business with Cuba.
The Cuban bagmen for both men explain in the video how they profited from their business on and off the island - Tokmakjian’s top aid, Armando Martinez, states he owns a C$500,000 home in Canada and has C$400,000 stashed in a Canadian bank, the sources said.
Martinez describes how he and his wife wined and dined former Deputy Sugar Minister Nelson Labrada, sometimes with his wife and at other times with his mistress, the latter trading up her apartment with $5,000 authorized by Tokmakjian after a request from Labrada.
Next up is a former deputy minister of basic industry, and Alberto Panton Graham, the former director of the nickel industry. Both were arrested in 2010.
The official says he was paid the equivalent of $200 to $300 a month by Tokmakjian to keep him informed of business opportunities, and Panton confesses that he took kickbacks from both Canadian companies, the sources said.
“I think the campaign has had some positive results, but as long as officials and buyers are paid the equivalent of $20 per month it won’t do away with the problem,” said the Cuban representative of a Spanish company that does a brisk export business with the island.
“On the one hand, I received a number of open bids by email last week when in the past almost all bids were done in person,” he said, asking his name not be used.
“On the other hand, three state buyers came to my office last week and all of them wanted money.”
Editing by David Adams and Anthony Boadle