Dangerous Liaisons: Cuba Tries Entrepreneurs for Corporate Corruption

Fernando Ravsberg*

This is how one of the businessmen currently being charged with corporate corruption was presented to the public some years ago. Photo: Raquel Perez

HAVANA TIMES — Some of the most important entrepreneurs who have been doing business in Cuba for decades have been summoned to courts on the island to respond to serious corporate corruption charges, the visible face of a much broader clean-up campaign undertaken by Cuban authorities.

What is surprising about this is not that the government has taken on the campaign but that it has taken so long to investigate these crimes, when Cuba’s entire business community knew how these individuals did business, the manner in which they operated and even what mechanisms they used to deal out different perks.

The creation of the Cuban Comptrollers Office spelled a radical change in the battle against corruption, allowing authorities to set their sights high, on the big shots who, though generally the very originators of the crime, had hitherto been untouchable.

I recall that, when Raul Castro announced that Mrs. Gladys Bejerano would be appointed Chief Comptroller, he mentioned that some high officials had not been pleased with the decision. Perhaps it was because they suspected this woman would not turn a blind eye on the illicit activities of ministers, the relatives of high-ups, or foreign businesspeople.

If so, their apprehension was justified. In the last 20 years, Cuba had not seen an anti-corruption campaign as far-reaching, profound and, above all, as protracted as this one. I have been told there aren’t enough courts on the island to try those charged with different corruption charges.

I know of a number of Cuban managers who were left alone for more than a year after being implicated in a case of corporate corruption. Just when they thought they had gotten off, however, they were summoned to trial and sentenced to several years in prison.

So many people accused of corruption have been sent to labor farms that – at least according to a high penitentiary official – the racial demographics of the inmate population is changing, as these business or political leaders are, for the most part, white.

Some think that the imprisonment of these officials is unjust, arguing that they became corrupt because of the measly salaries they receive. This argument could be used if we’re speaking of a regular employee or a school teacher, but it doesn’t hold water when it comes to Cuba’s entrepreneurial elite.

Gladys Bejerano is the head of the Cuban Comptroller’s Office, an institution directly subordinate to the president which has spelled a great, qualitative leap forward in the battle against corporate corruption. Photo: Raquel Perez

Generally speaking, these individuals have a standard of living that is well above that of common Cubans: they live in comfortable houses, move around in cars, have a monthly gasoline quota allotted to them, use cells phones paid for by their companies and receive additional money for their trips abroad. They are the people who have the least, material reasons to become involved in illicit activities.

Now, much commotion has been stirred up because the courts aren’t only trying corrupt Cuban company managers but also foreign entrepreneurs, even if they are citizens of such powerful countries as Canada or the United Kingdom.

No one, however, ought to be surprised at the fact that, when a case of corporate corruption is unveiled, authorities should detain, not only the person who receives a bribe, but also the one who hands it out under the table, to obtain privileges over competitors during business negotiations.

The Cuban government cannot be criticized for defending itself from the hawks that soar across its skies, looking for preys willing to sell out their fellow countrymen for a bit of cash, but it could be asked to show greater transparency in its proceedings.

Providing the public with information about these judicial processes would expose Cubans to the country’s successful struggle against corporate corruption and show businesspeople, both Cuban and foreign, the high price of accepting bribes.

As a Brookings Institution expert told Reuters, “If the Cuban government intends that such penalties serve as effective deterrents to corruption, and not as deterrents to legitimate foreign investment, it should clarify the precise nature of the alleged infractions and make the entire legal process more transparent.”

Transparency is precisely what the Cuban government needs to make the difference between eliminating corruption and discouraging foreign investment clear. It would help, for instance, if we knew that the legal actions currently being pursued arise from activities that would be considered crimes and punished in any other country as well.

In Cuba, the passion for secrecy continues to be a boomerang that returns to the thrower with dangerous force. In this issue, as in so many others, silence continues to be the least advisable response.
(*) An authorized HT translation of the original published in Spanish by BBC Mundo.

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