New testimonies from La Condesa, the prison for foreigners in Cuba, reveal a network of corruption that connects the black market with the officials of the Ministry of the Interior in charge of the prison. The alleged profiteering aggravates the already challenging situation regarding the lack of medicines, food and consular assistance that Canadian prisoners claim to be experiencing.
“We need help, we need food, we need medication, we need a consul over here and we need the Canadian people to know that there is a cover-up going on over here. And I know this is conflicting the narrative that the Canadian government is pushing that things are fine over here. They are not", says Canadian inmate Benjamin Tomlin from La Condesa, in an audio that CiberCuba had access to.
Interferences of all kinds in the recordings resemble an off-dial radio station. This radiophonic sound would seem to be taken from the short wave Radio Martí transmissions heard in Cuba or from the radio updates that Jews were secretly listening to from some basement about the advance of the allies into Nazi’s territory.
The anxiety of having limited time forces the speaker to rush the words and to overlook grammar connectors that blend one idea with another. However, the message is clear.
Corruption in La Condesa?
Nothing has changed for the rest of his inmates. If anything, the situation they are going through has deteriorated with the arrival of restrictive measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Benjamin Tomlin suffers from various health problems, including an inguinal hernia as a result of a hydrocele. The abdominal bulge that causes the hernia is an intestinal loop trapped in the wall of the abdomen that causes "excruciating pain," for which there are no medicines in the prison, the inmate told CiberCuba a few weeks ago. He was waiting to be transferred to Canada to be operated on in his country. However, the transfer was denied hours after an article was published on CiberCuba in which he and other Canadian inmates in La Condesa denounced the living conditions in the prison where they are being held.
According to Tomlin's testimony, the doctor blamed him for his deteriorating health. “Is your fault because you won’t do the surgery six months ago”. The doctor also assured him that it was not possible to operate on him at this moment “because the prisons are full of coronavirus”, and added, “there is nothing we can do”.
Simarjeet Buttar also says he needs a surgery that he cannot have for the same reason Tomlin has explained before. Buttar is also concerned about the corruption that, he says, occurs in the prison. It is a generalized practice in Cuban society that, apparently, has come to affect the prison population.
"We have to buy food outside [of jail] and it is very expensive, they charge us double and even triple price", Buttar said. The poor quality of the food in La Condesa, which the Canadians prisoners have previously denounced, seems to have worsen as the crisis in Cuba progresses. Statements by Vimalanathan Nadesu describe the food as having the same appearance as "vomit", impossible to describe and causing digestive problems.
The situation is aggravated by the impossibility of the prisoners receiving visits, as a preventive measure against Covid19. The last time the relatives of the inmates were allowed to see them in La Condesa was five months ago, in December. However, the blanket-ban on prison visits does not apply to everyone. For example, say the inmates, there are two ladies who sell their products to foreigners in the prison.
"They [the guards] only allow us to buy food from a woman from this town who works with these people", says one of the inmates.
"The jaba ladies"
In fact, there are two revendedoras (sellers) who have access to La Condesa with the consent of the guards. They price their products according to the fluctuations of the black market. For example, a liter of oil costs 12 dollars and a piece of cheese weighing not even 200 grams costs 15 dollars, the prisoners say. One dollar is equivalent to 25 Cuban pesos as per the Central Bank in Cuba. However due to the current inflation, its real market value in the street doubles the official exchange rate.
“We cannot survive like this, and we can only buy from these people. They also charge to bring us food, at 5 dollar each bag. They all work with the officers here; it is a very big corruption. And I also heard that the chickens that come in a box, for Christmas they also sell these to them, instead of giving them to the prisoners here. They are known here as "the jaba ladies" [the bag ladies] and they sell all that again to the prisoners here", the source adds.
In other words, the sellers also act as messengers between the packages of the relatives (who are banned from entering La Condesa) and the inmates. It is not clear whether the decision to extend the ban on family visits is really due to the Covid19 situation or to the economic advantages that, according to CiberCuba sources, accrue to the guards for the sale of food products to prisoners. The truth is that not being able to receive visitors force the inmates to depend on “the jaba ladies”.
In a previous article CiberCuba had reported that visits to inmates were suspended since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, and were only restored twice last year: during the summer and for Christmas. In the text it was also specified that since December the foreign prisoners in La Condesa have not been able to see their loved ones.
What does the Canadian embassy in Cuba do?
Another issue that perturbs inmates is that other embassies provide support to their citizens held in La Condesa and serve as a bridge to deliver basic goods to the inmates. They also intercede in extradition processes and are more empathetic in other forms of assistance, from their limited possibilities. However all the Canadian inmates with whom CiberCuba has been able to communicate, state that the Canadian authorities have not been operating at the same level as the other consular representations on the island.
According to various testimonies to which CiberCuba had access, the consular official in charge of dealing with the needs of the inmates and their families is Susana Martínez. The sources consulted claim that Martínez is Cuban. CiberCuba has not been able to corroborate her citizenship.
Nadesu has also communicated to Martínez his need for medical attention, medicines and food to counteract the diabetes suffered by the Canadian, but according to his account, "every time I call she says 'Oh, you are a diabetic'", as if realizing his ailments for the first time.
Therefore, the impression of the inmates is summarized in the following words of Tomlin: "The people who run the operation here, either they will minimize what is happening or they will simply lie to you and not pass the information on to our families".
They also showed their discomfort with the help recently provided to them from their relatives via their embassy:
Ruel Campbell says that his sister was contacted by “someone from the Canadian embassy” asking her to donate money in order to send a package to Campbell in La Condesa, but she did not understand “why she has to pay money for a Canadian to receive a clear package”, the prisoner questions.
Campbell is a Canadian citizen and was sentenced in Cuba to 25 years for possession of marihuana.
Nadesu's family from Canada also paid 250 dollars for which the inmate received "48 rolls of toilet paper, some toothpaste, some toothbrush, soap, masks and 1 kilo of cereal". There was no sign of the medicines he had requested to treat his diabetes that are not provided to him in La Condesa, he says. Nadesu, who also complains about the prison food, wonders, "What do they expect us to eat, toilet paper, here?"
Consular assistance is not enough
The Canadian inmates attribute the lack of consular assistance for them to the shortage of Canadian officials at their embassy in Havana. Nabeer Stephan finds it very strange that an official in the embassy of his country, who is supposed to speak English or French, requires them to communicate in Spanish. His voice, although measured, convey annoyance, and he asks the press for help to expose what is happening. The same sentiment was expressed by his friends.
“When I call my Canadian embassy, it's like I'm talking to a Cuban-run operation. They have forced me to speak Spanish and I don't understand Spanish well”, said Ruel Campbell.
"I know it seems incredible what we are telling you, so we ask you to investigate and don’t talk to Susana", Tomlin insists.
Tomlin says that the embassy refused to send a letter on his behalf, asking the authorities for his expulsion from the island. The Canadian regrets that other embassies have contributed to the liberation or transfer of their citizens to the country of origin, while his embassy refuses to even send a letter.
“We know they can do it because other embassies are willing to do it, but the Canadian government, or the Cubans who are running the Canadian consulate, for whatever reason don't even want to forward the letter. What is really happening here, and we want you to understand this, is that they do not provide the basic services that the Canadian government says they are providing”, Tomlin explains.
Another Canadian inmate, Radu Martin, also told this newspaper that his embassy refused to serve as a bridge to send documentation to his lawyer towards getting his parole. Martin was granted parole in December, according to his testimony, but he has yet to be released.
One of the claims of the Canadian prisoners is precisely that they are forced to serve their sentences to full term on the island, without the possibility of extradition or parole. About five months ago, the Cuban government extradited the Canadian tourist Ciorella Grossi, accused in Cuba of killing her husband in a hotel in Varadero, during the vacations that the couple enjoyed on the island. Not a year elapsed from the murder to the extradition. In contrast, Canadian prisoners in La Condesa have been incarcerated for years.
In general, there is a degree of dissatisfaction with the consular section of his country in Havana and, especially with the civil servant Martínez, who is in charge of assisting the Canadian inmates of La Condesa. Martinez's alleged Cubanness is one of the reasons why they assume that Cubans are in charge of the Canadian embassy in Havana. Another reason relates to the reduction of Canadian personnel at the embassy after the so called “sonic attacks”, also known as “Havana syndrome”.
Canadians affected by sonic attacks
"In 2018 there was a press release from the Canadian government saying that Canadians had nothing to fear by going to Cuba, this was after the sonic attacks", recalls Tomlin, who admitted that "I was concerned, and other Canadians were concerned." However, he adds, the authorities assured him that "you are gonna have no problems there, this was only for diplomatic staff," in reference to the consequences of the attacks.
“We detrimentally relied upon that, we came here and when we got problems with the Cuban government, we had no help. When we ask for help to the consulate staff, we’re either answered ‘no, we can't do this for you' or 'this is Cuba’”, Tomlin complains.
Recent press reports suggest that the Canadian government is considering increasing the diplomatic staff at its Embassy in Havana and the length of posts there, according to a letter sent by northern officials to its Foreign Minister, Marc Garneau. The letter contests the decision of increasing personnel based on the brain damage resulting from the so-called "Havana syndrome".
According to Global News, the Canadian government would have made the decision as there were no new cases of this syndrome diagnosed. However, the letter states that, since the government of Canada no longer publish the existence of new cases, it is impossible to know how many are currently suffering from brain damage and mentions that “Dalhousie University has assessed an additional 25 Canadian diplomats for brain injuries since March 2020”.
Faced with the new evidence, the Canadian newspaper recalled that in October of the same year the Foreign Ministry had confirmed no new cases of brain damage since 2018. From the foregoing, it can be inferred that the Canadian authorities have silenced information on the more than twenty recent cases that have presented symptoms of what is known as "Havana syndrome."
Since 2018, the Canadian government has reduced the diplomatic staff in Havana because of the sonic attacks symptoms that persist in the victims and designated the Havana embassy as an unaccompanied posting, meaning that family member of those who work in the consular section of Havana are no allowed to join the diplomats. United States, whose staff were equally affected, did the same with its diplomatic corps.
At this time, more than a dozen diplomats have initiated a lawsuit for 28 million dollars for the damages suffered by them, against the government of Canada who instructed them after suffering the symptoms, to maintain discretion in this regard.
In response to CiberCuba, the Government of Canada has previously insisted that "consular officials are providing assistance to detained Canadians". In the latest communication to this newspaper, a Canadian spokesperson stated that he had "nothing further to add to our previous responses to your questions on this matter".
The Canadian inmates of La Condesa have already denounce reprisals from the prison guards for making public the living and health conditions in which they find themselves. However, they continue to raise their voice about what happens there. As Tomlin says, “It's not just about us, it's not just about our families. It is for all Canadian travelers who want to travel with Canadian passports".
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