Sunday, March 7, 2021

Tourism to Cuba is a bad idea: Update on the case of Benjamin Tomlin

Cuba is the North Korea of the Americas, a secretive, totalitarian communist dictatorship with a terrible human rights record. Why would anyone go on vacation in Cuba or North Korea? There are cautionary tales on what happens to tourists traveling to these countries.

Otto Wambier: December 12, 1994 - June 19, 2017

College student Otto Wambier was sentenced to 15 years in prison and hard labor in March 2016 for allegedly trying to steal a political propaganda poster in North Korea. One year and three months later he was released to the United States in a coma acquired in prison allegedly from botulism and died a day after his return. e.

Joachim Løvschall was a Danish youth studying Spanish in Havana. On March 28, 1997 Joachim Løvschall ate his last dinner with white wine in a little restaurant called Aladin, located on 21st street in Havana. He went to the Revolutionary Plaza and bought a ticket to the Cuban National Theater. Following the performance he went to the theater's bar, Cafe Cantate, and met up with two Swedish friends. They each drank a couple of beers, but soon left because Joachim did not like the music. At 23:30, they said good bye to each other on the sidewalk in front of Cafe Cantate. 

Joachim Løvschall: December 7, 1970 - March 29, 1997

Joachim was gunned down by a Castro regime soldier in Havana, Cuba on March 29, 1997. The identity of the soldier has never been revealed to Joachim''s family. No one has been brought to justice. He was killed after leaving friends from a night out, on his walk back home

Despite these cautionary stories, tourists continue to go to North Korea and Cuba on holiday, and tragedies continue to happen. William Southworth, a recent university graduate, has written the following  report on the plight of Canadian national, Benjamin Tomlin and conditions in Cuba's prisons. This blog first reported on his plight on September 18, 2020. Below is an update.

Injustice and Inhumane Conditions in a Cuban Prison

Something is rotten in the state of Cuba.

Benjamin Tomlin: falsely imprisoned

By William Southworth

There are 300 prisoners at La Condesa, most of them foreigners. Nearly all have been sentenced on blatantly false charges if the men we interviewed are any good indication. Many have been detained chiefly for their value as political prisoners and not for their roles in any potential crimes. They were arrested abruptly and without explanation. Not understanding their predicament, these unfortunate persons were left to rot under terrible conditions without a sentence for months or years. One French prisoner had to wait 3 years and 5 months before he had his prison sentence explained to him.

If the incarcerated are lucky, they may eventually get the formality of a trial. The charges are normally exaggerated and oftentimes pure fiction. The witnesses are being led and if representation is provided, it is normally provided in bad faith by the Cuban state. While it may seem strange for a country whose economy depends on tourism to arbitrarily imprison visiting foreigners, the Cuban regime has a habit of taking political prisoners in order to seize their assets or use them as bargaining chips in foreign negotiations [1]. Regrettably, Cuba has gotten away with these practices by keeping its human rights abuses well out of the international spotlight.

If the Cuban regime does one thing very well, it is to control the flow of information [2]. The regime keeps a tight grasp on its hyperactive mass media to effectively project an image of power and purity both to its citizens and the outside world. Cuban independent journalists are a critically endangered species and are frequently , so an honest headline out of Cuba is a rarity [3]. Surely, Cuba has earned its lowest rank for journalistic freedom in Latin America [4]. As impressive as Cuba’s ability to control the spread of information in Cuba within their borders is, this achievement pales in comparison to their ability to control the spread of information outside its borders.

Consider the example of Benjamin Tomlin. 

Benjamin Tomlin is a well-respected Canadian businessman and a former employee of the Canada Development Investment Corporation (CDEV), he was arrested in 2018 during a visit to Cuba. He was charged with allegedly having sex with a 15-year-old girl during a previous visit, but the exact nature of his charges was kept from him for a very long time. Tomlin was arrested without proper explanation and held for months before a trial. While it is impossible to know the real motives behind his arrest, it stands to reason from previous cases that Cuba may have seized Benjamin over his potential value as a well-connected prisoner. The Cuban state has arrested several other prominent Canadian nationals in order to secure their large on-island assets, namely the wealthy Sarkis Yacoubin and the well-connected Cy Tokmakijan, [5]. When he was being arrested, Tomlin asked the attending officers a poignant question:

“I am a criminal?”

The answer was equally pointed.

“No, you’re just unlucky.”

When he did finally get his trial, it was marred by irregularities and gaps in evidence. Luckier than most, Tomlin was represented in good faith by a Cuban Canadian lawyer, Ricardo Alcolado Perez[6]. Even so, none of the witnesses were able to identify Tomlin before the court, not even the girl whom Tomlin had allegedly had intercourse with. According to Tomlin’s later testimony, he had never seen the girl that was brought before the court. Tomlin was also made to sign various agreements in a Spanish without proper translation. Despite the clear lack of evidence, Tomlin was sentenced to ten years at La Condesa.

The conditions there are terrible. The prison is overcrowded, the beds tightly packed. Tomlin estimates the prison is built for 150 but houses at least twice that number. Disease runs rampant, electricity is intermittent, toilets are hard to access and supplies are scarce. Seriously sick prisoners must wait months for treatment. Mr. Tomlin said he had to wait a month before he received treatment for an excruciatingly painful kidney infection. He has also never received medication for chronic pain owning to a spinal injury. His time at La Condesa has debilitated Benjamin. If this is not proof enough of bad conditions, surely the recent death of one Venezuelan prisoner there, a man named Oscar Nuñez, puts it beyond all doubt. According to Tomlin, Nuñez had been asking to see a doctor for some time before he died without treatment. The prison authorities were allegedly aware of Nuñez’s critical condition before his death.

Tomlin supported his horror story of neglect and inhumane conditions with the testimonies of three other prisoners. These prisoners, one Canadian, one Frenchman and one Venezuelan, echoed Benjamin’s account with their own stories of arbitrary arrests and months spent waiting for an explanation and then, at last, sham trials. They were all in prison for long sentences ranging from 8-10 years and were ready to tell their stories despite the potential consequences. Although they had all once been wary of running their mouths about prison conditions, they had lost all hope of a sudden release and all fear of the extended sentences the guards still threaten them with.

The other Canadian prisoner spoke about the crumbling infrastructure with as much detail as the short interview allowed. The Frenchman, Jacques, alleged the prisoners suffered psychological abuse at the hands of the guardsmen. The Venezuelan, Fabio, talked about moldy food and speculated about the nature of the Cuban police state.

Talking about the muddy circumstances surrounding his sudden detention, he hazarded a few words.

“Esto es Cuba.” (This is Cuba.)

Who knows what other injustices these prisoners might have revealed if they only had a few more minutes to speak? When we interviewed the prisoners, the lines were on a 5-minute time limit and always monitored. The prisoners spoke rapidly in quiet, urgent tones to keep a modicum of confidentiality. Our conversations would often be cut out off at random intervals, or when sensitive topics came up. I received calls from restricted numbers soon after these conversations, although I declined to answer them.

But according to Caroline Simpson, Tomlin’s sister, the true state of these Cuban prisons is a secret. Her inquiries about the prison never got straight answers from Cuban officials, who painted a rosy picture of La Condesa. In this fantasy, all the prisoners were well-cared for and had easy access to the supplies in the prison store. If they had any issues, they could easily contact their native embassies for governmental assistance. But as the testimony of the prisoners reveals, the reality at La Condesa and other Cuban prisons is far worse than the official picture [7].

That these prisoners should be willing to testify at all is an act of bravery. The guards had promised punishment should they speak about the poor conditions at La Condesa, threatening the prisoners with extended sentences. But Tomlin said that he and his fellow prisoners had grown tired of keeping their silence and living in fear.

Now that a new president has assumed office, the Cuban question is all the more pressing. Will the United States pursue a policy of détente or renew a blockade with the island? Is a middle course possible and if so, what will it mean for the prisoners in La Condesa? 

As the case of Benjamin Tomlin demonstrates, the United States and Canada must remember that they are dealing with a dishonest, totalitarian state. If other nations continue to tolerate boldfaced human rights abuses in Cuba, Tomlin will certainly not be the last foreigner to fall victim to a predatory Cuban police state.

Cited Sources

[1] Whitefield, Mimi. “53 Cuban Political Prisoners Are Free, but Controversy Remains.” Miami Herald, Miami Herald, 14 Jan. 2015,

[2] MacDuff, Carlyle. “Cuba's Official Media and Its Informative Omissions.” Havana Times, 18 July 2020,

[3] Oppenheimer, Andres. “A Horrible Time for Journalists - and Not Just in Cuba and Venezuela.” Miami Herald, 27 Oct. 2018,

[4] N.A. “Cuba : Constant Ordeal for Independent Media: Reporters without Borders.” RSF, Reporters Without Borders, 2020,

[5] Quinn, Jennifer. “Canadian Businessman Expelled from Cuban Jail.”, 7 Feb. 2014,

[6]The Canadian Press | News. “Freeland Says She Brought up Case of Imprisoned Canadian with Cuban Foreign Minister.” National Observer, 2 Sept. 2019,

[7] Associated Latin Press. “Prensa Latina - Latin American News Agency.”, 25 June 2020,

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