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Outcome of airline corruption trial revealed

 

Patricia Grogg, Inter Press Service

 

HAVANA.- A Havana court handed down sentences of three to 15 years to 15 officials and employees of Cubana de Aviacion airline and a tourism agency jointly owned by Chilean investors and the Cuban government, in a corruption case that was veiled in a shroud of secrecy.

 

But despite the silence surrounding the case, the outcome of the trial did not seem to take people in this Caribbean island nation by surprise.

 

"You can imagine that people knew something was going on in Cubana, but since the press hasn't been publishing anything, you just don't know what to think about these things," one middle-aged woman told IPS. She said she found out about the results of the trial from a friend, who heard about it on the Monday night news.

 

One of those found guilty, but in absentia, was Chilean businessman Marcel Marambio, president of the Sol y Son tourism agency. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison for fraud, bribery and falsification of documents.

 

According to the government communiqué published by the Granma newspaper Tuesday, Marambio "took advantage" of his position "to defraud the Cuban government for his own benefit, forging and deliberately concealing information and bribing Cuban officials to go along with his shady business dealings."

 

Cubana de Aviación, Cuba's flagship airline, was the focus of speculation of all kinds after the country’s top aviation official, General Rogelio Acevedo, was sacked as president of the Cuban Institute of Civil Aeronautics in March 2010. Acevedo is a veteran revolutionary in the guerrilla struggle led by Fidel Castro in the 1950s and later played a prominent role in Angola's 1975-2002 civil war, in which Cuban troops participated in the 1970s and 1980s.

 

The government report on the trial – whose date is not mentioned – provides the names of each of the people found guilty, and the sentences they were given. However, the list does not include Acevedo, who was to be assigned to "other tasks" after he was found to be allegedly running a side business chartering Cubana jets for personal profit, a government statement reported in March 2010.

 

Since then, Cuba's state-controlled press has ignored the case. But it has been mentioned in several blogs, and by Cuban political scientist Esteban Morales in articles on corruption, a problem he sees as political and describes as a threat, even to national security, that must be the target of an all-out offensive.

 

One of the most worrisome elements of corruption, according to Morales, is its "corrosive" effect. "When morality and ethics are affected, the prestige of our political system is undermined and everything goes downhill. That's why I agree with those who say corruption is a national security problem," Morales said in an interview granted to IPS in August 2010.

 

President Raúl Castro has also referred on more than one occasion to the problem of corruption and the risks it poses to "the essence of socialism."

 

In 2009, the president created a special Comptroller General's Office to audit and investigate public companies. Headed by Gladys Bejerano, vice president of the Council of State, the Office was tasked with exercising closer scrutiny and taking direct action in response to any sign of corruption.

 

Castro has stated that whoever commits a crime will feel the full weight of the law, no matter what their position.

 

The court found the 15 defendants guilty of committing fraud in exchange for cash bribes and perks. The government report provided no information on their jobs or the specific offences for which they were convicted, beyond the general categories of fraud and falsification of documents.

 

Four of the convicted Cubana and Sol y Son employees are women. Of them, the longest sentence – six years - went to Lucy Hortensia Leal, who according to press reports was a Sol y Son accountant and the financial director of the International Network Group (ING).

 

Marcel Marambio's brother Max founded ING in 1985 and has presided over it since then.

 

Max Marambio, who jointly owns the Rio Zaza food company along with the Cuban state, was sentenced in absentia in May to 20 years in prison in a corruption case in which former Cuban food industry minister Alejandro Roca was also found guilty.

 

After the verdict was handed down, Max Marambio became more critical of the Cuban government.

 

The wealthy, controversial businessman was once a left-wing militant in Chile and a bodyguard of former socialist Chilean President Salvador Allende, who was killed in the Sept. 11, 1973 coup in which General Augusto Pinochet overthrew his government.

 

In 2008, the José Martí publishing house published his memoirs, "Las armas de ayer" (Yesterday's Weapons), which was still possible to find in Cuba's bookstores early this year, as IPS found. In the book, Marambio told how he came to Cuba to study when he was an adolescent, on the invitation of former president Fidel Castro.