An elderly Panamanian businessman has been jailed in Cuba for more than a year in what is variously described as a case of corruption or Havana attempts to renege on its debts or switch more of its trade to businessmen from politically sympathetic countries.
Nessim Abadi, in his early 70s and owner of the large Audiofoto chain of electronics stores, was arrested around August of last year but has not been tried or even charged, according to friends and business contacts in Panama City.
Relatives have kept the case out of the news media because of fears that the Cuban government will retaliate against him, the sources said. The family declined an El Nuevo Herald request for an interview or information on the case.
But the public records of Panama’s Foreign Ministry show Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Franco spent $1,551.42 on a trip to Havana Oct. 7-8 to talk to Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez about “the Nessin Abadi case.” The ministry did not respond to El Nuevo Herald calls for comment for this story.
Abadi, part of a large family of Syrian Jews who migrated to Panama in the early 1900s, had been selling Asian-made electronic, household and other goods and equipment to the Cuban government for many years out of Panama’s duty-free Colon Free Zone (CFZ).
He has been detained in several homes in Havana run by the Interior Ministry and one jail, and interrogated almost daily by ministry investigators but has not been charged, according to his friends and business contacts.
Cuban officials told relatives during the few contacts they have been allowed that he is suspected of corruption, added the sources, who said they were outraged by Abadi’s jailing but asked to remain anonymous because of the family’s wishes.
The government of Raúl Castro jailed at least a dozen foreign businessmen in Havana in 2011 and 2012 in what he painted as a crackdown on corruption so prevalent on the island that it was endangering the future of the communist government.
CFZ businessmen said that Abadi has a reputation for total honesty and that they suspected Cuba arrested him to avoid paying its debt to him — and to send a message to its other debtors in Panama to await any late payments patiently and keep their mouths shut.
Cuba’s total debt to CFZ business owners is not known because there is no central clearing system, but it is considered to be significant because “it is increasingly becoming more and more difficult to collect from Cuba,” said one Panama businessman.
For Cuba to accuse foreign businessmen of corruption is “like calling the kettle black,” he added. “What happened is that there is no law in Cuba. These international investors served their useful purpose and now they are being burned by the government.”
A similar argument was made last month by Stephen Purvis, a British businessman arrested in Havana in 2011, jailed for 15 months, tried this June and sentenced essentially to time served. He is now back in England.
Although reporters in Havana were told that Purvis was under investigation for corruption, he wrote in a letter to the British magazine The Economist last month that he was verbally accused of revealing state secrets and other violations, but never corruption.
Instead, he wrote, he was convicted of “various supposed breaches of financial regulations,” charges that could easily be filed against any of the several other foreign businessmen he met in jails in Havana.
Few of those cases “have been reported in the press and there are many more in the system than is widely known,” Purvis wrote. “As they are all still either waiting for charges, trial or sentencing they will certainly not be talking to the press.”
Purvis also appeared to indicate that Cuba targeted certain businessmen in order to make room for deals with businessmen from other countries that are more politically in tune with Havana and may not push so hard for their debts to be paid.
Purvis wrote to The Economist that the jailed businessmen are from several countries, “although representatives from Brazil, Venezuela and China were conspicuous by their absence.”
Purvis could not be contacted directly for this story.
“The reasons for actively and aggressively pursuing foreign business are far more complicated” than corruption, he argued. “Why for example is the representative of [the Swedish phone company] Ericsson in jail for exactly the same activities as their Chinese competitor who is not?”
“Until the law relating to foreign investment and commerce is revised and the security service changes its modus operandi for enforcing these laws, Cuba will remain extremely risky for . . . foreign business,” he wrote. “Foreign executives should be under no illusion about the great personal risks they run if they choose to do business there.”
Purvis, who was chief of operations of Coral Capital, a British firm that invested in hotels and automobile imports and planned a golf resort, was freed along with fellow British citizen Amado Fakhre, who was the company’s executive director.
Canadian Sarkis Yacoubian was sentenced to nine years in a prison in June even though he cooperated with authorities in detailing a corruption scheme that also brought down several government officials. His cousin and business partner, Krikor Bayassalian, a Lebanese citizen, was sentenced to four years in prison.
Still awaiting trial is another Canadian, Cy Tokmakjian, who like Yacoubian sold transportation and other equipment to the Cuban government. He was arrested in 2011.
Abadi is not the first Panamanian businessman to run afoul in Cuba.
Alejandro Abood, then 50, was arrested in Havana in 2001 in what an El Nuevo Herald report at the time described as a roundup of Cubans and foreigners suspected of spying activities close to the offices of then-ruler Fidel Castro.
As in the Abadi case, his relatives refused to speak to the media in hopes of winning good treatment in Havana.
Other sources told the newspaper Abood was arrested because he allegedly tried to collect on Cuba’s debt by bribing officials who could influence the payments.
Abood was in fact the key seller of imported technology to SERVICEX, headed by Rodolfo Fernández, AKA Conaca, personal buyer of imported goods for Fidel and brother Raúl Castro, said Delfín Fernandez, his nephew and now a Miami resident.
Abood was freed five years ago, apparently because of ill health and is now recovered and living in Panama. But he remains on the U.S. Treasury Department’s list of persons who have violated economic sanctions on Cuba and other countries.