Cuba slipped five places on an international corruption ranking, reinforcing the perception that bribery is a growing problem in a country caught between its Soviet-styled economy and its push toward market reforms.
The Germany-based Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI) for 2013 ranked Cuba in 63rd place among 177 countries and territories — tied with Ghana and Saudi Arabia — and five spots lower than in the previous year.
Uruguay held the top spot in Latin Americanat 19th place, followed by Chile in 22nd, Puerto Rico in 33rd and Costa Rica in 49th. Following Cuba were all other Latin American nations, with Mexico in 106th and Venezuela in 160th — the region’s worst and tied with Eritrea and Cambodia.
The CPI, published annually since 1995, uses at least four and up to 10 independent surveys to assign a score to each country and territory from one to 100. Denmark and New Zealand tied for first, the United States tied in 19th and Somalia, Afghanistan and North Korea tied for last.
The drop in Cuba’s ranking was “so small that it’s hard even to guess what caused it, or whether the move was due to changes in perceptions of other countries or of Cuba,” said Phil Peters, head of the Cuba Research Center in Alexandria, Va., and an advocate of improved U.S. relations with the island.
Corruption has long been a problem in Cuba, however, with workers pilfering from state stockpiles in order to make up for their low salaries, and foreign companies paying bribes to officials who handle multi-million dollar deals but earn as little as $30-$40 a month.
A 2006 report by U.S. diplomats in Havana alleged Cuba was “rife with corrupt practices” up to Fidel Castro’s “closest advisors.” It quoted a Swiss businessman as saying that in Cuba, “just like everywhere in the world, a million-dollar contract gets you $100,000 in the bank.”
But the government of Raúl Castro launched a crackdown after he succeeded ailing brother Fidel in 2008, branding corruption as “one of the principal enemies of the revolution” and saying that it was undermining his push for market economic reforms.
Castro created the post of comptroller general to audit government offices and state-run enterprises, and appointed his son Alejandro, an Interior Ministry officer who also serves as his top security advisor, to supervise and enforce the anti-corruption campaign.
Some of the bigger scandals unearthed involved Cuba’s telecommunications, aviation, nickel, cigar and construction industries, and reportedly led to the discreet arrests or dismissals of scores of government officials.
Also caught in the roundups were two foreigners who administered Coral Capital Group, a British firm that had plans to invest $1 billion on the island. They were jailed for two years, tried and sentenced to time served.
Canadian Sarkis Yacoubian was sentenced to nine years in prison in June for a corruption scheme that involved several Cuban officials. His cousin and business partner, Krikor Bayassalian, a Lebanese citizen, was sentenced to four years.
Still awaiting trial are another Canadian, Cy Tokmakjian, arrested in 2011, and Nessim Abadi, a Panamanian businessman in his 70s who was arrested in August 2012. Both men sold foreign made machinery and other goods to the Cuban government.
Cuba’s government-controlled news media has not reported on the corruption cases involving foreign businessmen.