Cuban regime acolytes rush to register MSME businesses after ease of Trump-era sanctions
Several MSMEs such as TL38 SURL and 25MN SURL were registered by members of the regime's inner circle and by those with close links to state-owned companies such as the exporter Alcona S.A. headed by Loretta García, the daughter of Gen. Guillermo García Frías.
June 23, 2022 5:22pm
Updated: November 9, 2023 8:47am
Recently, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued a license for a U.S.-based entity to make direct capital investments in privately-owned Cuban small and medium-sized enterprises known as MSMEs (MIPYMES in Spanish). Shortly after this, several pro-democracy activists took to social media and warned about the possible deceptions behind the new MSMEs. They have sternly warned that none of the recent so-called changes will actually benefit the average Cuban citizen, but rather enrich the economic allies of Cuba’s military dictatorship.
This Wednesday, Cuban journalist José Raúl Gallego warned on social media that Yoandy Riverón González, a State Security officer in Villa Clara, is among the directors of the small company Calzados Jona's SURL. Calzados is a footwear trading company registered on December 24, 2021, in Camajuaní, Villa Clara.
Gallego says that Riverón, who used the pseudonym "Cristian" in the counterintelligence community, is "responsible for the harassment, bullying, and expulsion of students and professors of the Universidad Central de la Villas."
According to a report by the Observatory of Academic Freedom (OLA), Riverón was linked to the well-known harassment and expulsion cases of ADN's journalist Karla María Pérez (2017), Dalila Rodríguez (2016-2017), and Javier Larrea (2018-2020).
Shortly after protests erupted on the island on July 11, 2021, the regime passed Decree-Law 46, which authorized the creation of small and medium-sized state and non-state enterprises, a political move that led many to erroneously believe that a significant change was taking place in the communist country.
This week, Diario de Cuba published an article in which journalist and economist Roberto Alvarez Quiñones states that the regime's true objective is to "capture U.S. capital, under the Helms-Burton Act" and to deceive President Joe Biden.
Indeed, the concerns of many analysts regarding this situation are supported by documented evidence.
Several MSMEs, such as TL38 SURL and 25MN SURL, have been registered by members of the regime's inner circle and maintain close ties to state-owned companies. For example, one of those companies is the exporter Alcona S.A, run by Loretta García, daughter of Gen. Guillermo García Frías. Additionally, other entities are part of the Ministry of Agriculture (MINAG).
On December 6, 2021, Cuban Yureibys Pérez Blanco registered TL38 SURL, an SME dedicated to preparing and preserving meats, and e-commerce in Cuba. TL38 provides an address in Barrio Embil, Boyeros municipality, Havana.
Yureibys Pérez Blanco is the wife of Carlos Quintero Agullo who, according to a recent report by Cubanet, was the CFO of Alcona S.A.
In fact, according to current regulations, imports and exports of MSMEs will only be possible through state-owned entities. Recently, the independent media Yucabyte warned that the U.S. State Department sanctioned two state-owned entities among those authorized.
Pérez Blanco is no ordinary Cuban citizen. Since 2016, she has been in charge of Treew Trading Corp. and a network of registered offshore companies responsible for internationally marketing products for Alcona S.A and other MINAG entities, such as Cítricos Caribe and Empresa Estatal Socialista Victoria de Girón.
The interactive chart below shows the vast network of offshore companies registered or related to Yureibys Pérez Blanco, who is a Cuban citizen and resident.
Alcona S.A. is one of the nine entities part of the Flora and Fauna Business Group of the Cuban Ministry of Agriculture (MINAG), led by General Guillermo García Frías and his daughter Loretta García. Much of Cuba's charcoal is distributed abroad by that Cuban state entity, created in 1995.
Since 2014, it has done so through the company B&P Export, which later became Treew Trading Corp. and was registered in Panama. Two years after its creation, Treew's multi-million dollar conglomerate appointed Yureibys Pérez Blanco as its proxy.
Along with Perez Blanco, in the Panamanian registry of Treew Trading Corp. also appears a Spanish businessman named Juan Carlos Rodriguez Rodriguez, representative of Iberica y Combustibles Solidos (Ibecosol S.L), a company that imports marabou charcoal from Empresa de Flora y Fauna.
According to an ASCE report, Ibecosol began commercializing Cuban charcoal in 2007 and operates charcoal processing plants in four locations on the island: Ciego de Avila, Granma, Jobabo, and Las Tunas.
So far, more than ten newly registered MSMEs belong to the charcoal industry, a sector that the regime has gone to great lengths to present as privately owned during the Obama era. Even though Cuban charcoal makers belong to CCS (Cooperativas de Crédito y Servicios), a group of supposedly privately owned and operated organizations. Instead, a report by the ASCE (Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy) reveals that "in reality, the CCSs are under government supervision and control."
In fact, in 2017, ADN Cuba conducted a series of interviews on the island with several charcoal makers who admitted that the companies only presented themselves as private to take advantage of the benefits of Obama's policy change but that they were run by the regime and operated with government-provided supplies.
Marabú charcoal (made from D. cinerea, a bush that grows wild in Cuba) has been exported worldwide at least since 2005 and mainly to European countries. ASCE explained that fuel played a vital role in thawing the economic relations between Cuba and the U.S.
"In January 2015, the U.S. Treasury Department amended the regulations governing economic relations with Cuba 'to authorize the importation of certain goods and services from Cuba produced by independent Cuban entrepreneurs,'" ASCE writes.
At the time, "the goal was to stimulate the Cuban private sector and support the people's ability to exercise greater control over their own lives and determine the country's future."
Interestingly, the same month that Obama traveled to Cuba, Pérez Blanco was portrayed by NBC 6 and the AP as a Cuban schoolteacher who benefited from Obama's cultural and educational engagement with the island. Pérez Blanco was also the head of a transnational corporation with annual revenues ranging from $10 million to $50 million.
It is unclear how Perez Blanco went from running a language school in Cuba in 2016 to emigrating to the U.S. and launching several businesses linked to a multi-million dollar company. She also reportedly graduated with an MBA from FIU in 2021. Finally, she is now a beneficiary of the new measures for SMEs, designed only for Cuba's permanent residents.
When ADN America contacted Ms. Perez Blanco also to ask her if the meat company TL38 SURL is commercially related to other entities of hers abroad or the Flora y Fauna Group, it did not receive a response.
As seen in the interactive graphic, Ms. Perez registered in Florida in 2019 Embil LLC with the dba Treew Trading, the exact name of the company in Panamá and Barcelona that trades with state-owned products, according to the company's public profile in Alibaba.
However, the Flora y Fauna Business Group, headed by General Garcia Frias and his daughter Loretta Garcia, has been supplying meat to several e-commerce sites connected to Perez Blanco through Treew Inc. In this Canadian technology company, she is listed as the director of operations.
The online store is owned by Cuban state-owned companies but uses international partners to process payments with credit card gateways abroad.
The Envios Agro online store was built as a partnership between the Cuban Export-Import Corporation (CIMEX), TRD (Tiendas de Recaudación de Divisas), and the Canadian company NACTWS Inc. The purpose was to put more than 23 state-owned companies online, a 2014 On Cuba article explains.
However, in 2007, attorney Sheppard registered a new entity in Canada with the same name, and in 2017 the subsidiary NACTWS S.L was opened in Mallorca, Spain, with Graverán as a director, according to documents uncovered by ADN América in the commercial registry.
The Spanish subsidiary operates several e-commerce sites connected to physical stores owned by the Cuban government, according to reports.
In reality, "multiple virtual stores are operating from Cuba, recognized as official and managed by entities authorized by the State to carry out this type of operations. Their peculiarity is the alliances with foreign companies to access international payment gateways for marketing their products and/or services," says an October 2010 academic thesis by former graduate student Nelson Hernandez Lopez, who was studying at the Center for the Study of Management Techniques at the University of Havana.
Like its predecessor, NACTWS Inc, Treew Inc is a high-tech company dedicated to online trade with Cuba. According to its public profile, it maintains a call center linked to a network of e-commerce sites targeting the Cuban exile community.
In this network of virtual stores, different international partners direct customers to the Treew Inc. business umbrella with the subdomain Supermercado Treew (supermarket.treew.com), a network of virtual stores affiliated to the Palenque Restaurant in Cuba, which belongs to the Palco Group, now also under the control of the military conglomerate GAESA.
More than 10 e-commerce sites registered in countries like Spain, Panama, and the State of Florida in the United States are associated with the same Treew Inc. fax number or customer service number. Still, once a purchase is made abroad through the international partner, the ordered products are supplied by the Palco Group and other Cuban state entities on the island.
- The chart includes entities such as Treew Travel related to the conglomerate and virtual stores Supermarket Buena Vista, First Choice Market, and Cool TUSET. According to Cubanet, these could be affiliated with Supermarket 23.
The most popular site affiliated with Treew Inc. is Supermarket 23, which distributes products from Palco and other state-owned stores. At least as early as 2008 Supermarket 23 was already operating under the Treew Inc. marketing funnel.
The company distributes food in Mercedes Benz vans in Cuba with state-owned license plates. As shown in the photograph, the vans are provided by MCV Comercial S.A., a joint venture sponsored by the Ministry of Transportation in Cuba.
Another individual linked to Treew's network of subsidiaries registered a new SME in Cuba. The SME, 25MN SURL, has the same purpose as TL38 SURL: to process and preserve meat.
The individual's name is Juan Alejandro Quevedo Ponce, whose father Anibal Quevedo Rodriguez is a U.S. resident and veteran of the Angolan war He has been described as a "front man for the regime," according to the Cubanet news site.
According to the reports mentioned above, Mr. Quevedo Rodriguez is a graduate of the Instituto Superior de Relaciones Internacionales (ISRI). He self-identifies on LinkedIn as the CEO of Treew Inc, the Canadian company that changed its former name (NACTWS Inc) in 2005 and acts as an international partner of TRD and CIMEX's online stores.
The list of e-commerce sites and offshore businesses associated with Quevedo Rodriguez is long and goes back more than a decade.
In the early 2000s, Quevedo Rodriguez was vice president of ICC Corp, a Cuban company linked to a partnership in Canada that developed for Cubapacks International, owned by CIMEX Corporation, the now-defunct preciosfijos.com, and cash2cuba.com e-commerce sites.
Cash2cuba was a remittance service that used the TRANSCARD affiliated with FINCIMEX. Both CIMEX and FINCIMEX now belong to the military conglomerate GAESA, and both are sanctioned by the United States.
ICC Corp. also operated Cuba's first state-owned news aggregator (cubaweb.cu), which, according to CNN, served as a reference point for Cuba's e-commerce business for decades. According to a CNN.com article from the time, the U.S. news network covered the downing of the Brothers to the Rescue planes and linked its readers to the only website that could tell the regime's side of the story: cubaweb.cu, at the time.
The international incident "attracted so much traffic, some 60,000 hits per day," that Cubaweb could not handle the load and had to ask CNN to dismantle the link.
Mr. Quevedo Rodriguez's son, Juan Alejandro Quevedo Ponce, is also affiliated with a Treew branch in Spain.
During a trip to Europe with his father in 2010, Juan Alejandro Quevedo Ponce registered the now-dormant Treew Online S.L. in Valencia, Spain at the same registered address for VirtualScape S.L., a Spanish company owned by a man named Luis Flores who happens to be his father's former colleague at ICC. Corp.
Both entities have maintained their domicile at Ave. La Safor 12 10, 66, 46015 Valencia.
For several years, Luis Flores, who is also now the owner of the popular news site cibercuba.com, operated through VirtualScape S.L. several e-commerce sites publicly linked to Quevedo Rodríguez, such as tusupermarket.com and envioregalos.com.
According to Hernández López’s 2010 University of Havana thesis (previously cited), the online stores envioregalos.com and tusupermarket.com belonged to the Palenque Restaurant, an enterprise owned by Grupo Palco in Cuba and were operated by an international partner.
When contacted by ADN America about this issue, Mr. Flores said the following: "There was a commercial relationship between VirtualScape SL and Treew Online SL in Spain, through which VirtualScape SL operated EnvioRegalos.com as a shipping store to Cuba. Several years ago, EnvioRegalos.com ceased operations, and there is currently no relationship between the two entities. VirtualScape S.L has never had any commercial relationship with Palco or any other Cuban company".
Flores added there is no current relationship between VirtualScape SL and any entities affiliated with Treew.
Quevedo Ponce also has registered the Havana restaurant 25MN and another private business, Nana Café, operated by his mother, Iliana Ponce. According to her social network profile, the latter also worked at VirtualScape S.L.
Today, Quevedo Rodriguez is associated with Supermarket 23, one of the most popular e-commerce sites that cater to the exile community and is operated by the Canadian company Supermarket 23 Corp.
Mr. Quevedo Rodriguez's other son, Anibal Javier Quevedo Ponce, also appears in the records of Supermarket 23 LLC in Florida. Before deleting his LinkedIn profile, Anibal claimed he was a campaign finance assistant to Congressman Joe Garcia and helped him raise more than $1 million in 2016.
The same address that Supermarket 23 LLC cites as its warehouse in Florida,–2000 N.W. 135th Ave, Miami, FL–is the same address where Havan R.X., a company that ships medicines to Cuba, is also, and by Yureibys Pérez Blanco.
Aníbal Quevedo appears in the Panamanian registries of Havana R.X. and Treew Travel S.A. along with Pérez Blanco and as director of Treew U.K. Limited in Great Britain.
Many of the aforementioned entities are linked to Canadian lawyer Thomas Sheppard and his law firm's address. According to documents consulted by ADN America in the Canadian commercial registry, Sheppard appears in annual reports of ICC Corp, NACTWS Inc, or Treew Inc.
Records in Canada suggest that Sheppard also filed ICC Corp. annual reports in 2003.
In addition, Sheppard is the president of Sheffield Ventures, a money remittance company that opened branches in Mallorca with an initial capital of 200,000 euros and is an authorized distributor of American International Service (AIS) cards, a GAESA entity registered in Panama.
ADN América contacted Mr. Sheppard for comment, but he declined, arguing that "as a lawyer, he could not provide information about his clients or answer questions," but offered to send the list of questions to his clients, although without confirming who they are.
At the time of this publication, ADN America has not received any additional response from Sheppard or his clients.
Last month, the U.S. State Department said the Biden administration "will encourage the growth of Cuba's private sector by supporting greater access to U.S. Internet services, applications, and e-commerce platforms."
"The main problem I see in MSMEs is the selective process. I am in favor of the Cuban entrepreneur; what I am against is the selective entrepreneur, the one who is the leader's son, or graduated from a military school, then whitewashed and presented abroad as private entrepreneurs," said activist Alberto Fonseca.
He is currently promoting a boycott movement against the Cuban regime's companies abroad.
If history teaches us anything, Mr. Fonseca's concerns about MSMEs and the Biden Administration's announcement appear to be valid.
Business with Cuba, as with other communist countries, seems to favor those connected to the elite. For example, after the collapse of the Soviet Union many KGB agents took over different sectors of the economy.
A similar phenomenon may occur in Cuba. This is reinforced by the case of Treew Inc whose current manager, according to a Cubanet report, is Luis Gustavo Mazorra Perez. He also previously identified himself as the founder and manager of Supermercado Treew, the market associated with Palco.
One former U.S. intelligence community contractor with deep familiarity of Cuban intelligence, who spoke to ADN America on the condition of anonymity, said Mazorra Perez was a former Cuban intelligence officer stationed at various posts in Latin America during the late 1980s. He was also granted a visa to enter the United States during the Obama era, he added.
"In 1988, Mazorra was appointed to the Mexico center and given an embassy post as a Cuban intelligence officer in Mexico. Mazorra was first or second secretary," the source recalled. He added that Perez’s pseudonym within the Cuban intelligence community was "Francisco."
"He worked in the Department of Latin America and the Caribbean of the General Directorate of Intelligence (DGI) of the Ministry of the Interior," the source revealed, adding that Mazorra worked as a Cuban official in Mexico and Panama in the late 1980s after graduating with a law degree from the workers' course at the University of Havana.
According to Cubanet, Mazorra Pérez is also the son of diplomat Gustavo Mazorra Hernández, first vice-president of the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples. This entity has worked closely with the intelligence services and foreign NGOs sympathetic to the Cuban revolution for decades.
Mazorra Perez is the son-in-law of the late Brigadier General Manuel Fernandez Crespo, head of the DGCI (General Directorate of Counterintelligence) between 1985 and 1989.
As head of MININT counterintelligence, Mazorra's father-in-law investigated and testified against the very famous Cuban General Arnaldo Ochoa during Case 1 in 1989. Fernández Crespo died in 2006, according to the official Cuban press. General Abelardo Colomé Ibarra, who was Minister of the Interior and Vice President of Cuba until he died in 2015, was present at Fernández Crespo’s funeral with his family.
According to the same former intelligence contractor, Mazorra Perez is now retired from the intelligence services, and although he lives in Cuba, he regularly travels abroad. During a trip to the U.S. he reportedly visited the headquarters of Rey Envios in Hialeah, a DBA (Doing Business As) of Treew LLC, also associated with supermarketcuba.com.
At the time of publishing this article, neither Rey Envíos nor Mr. Luis Mazorra Pérez had responded to the questions sent by ADN América.
Multiple social media posts by Mr. Mazorra Perez during those years seem to confirm his visit to Miami.
Until 2014, Treew LLC was listed as an affiliate or operating envios.supermarket.treew.com, the online store affiliated with the Palco Group, which Mazorra managed in Cuba.
That website maintained the same customer service number used by the unicoshabanos.com portal, a company that traded Cuban cigars worldwide, registered by Quevedo Rodriguez in the European tax haven of Gibraltar, according to a 2012 Luxer News story.
However, records show that Treew's LLC is managed in Florida by Rafael Rey Ponce and David Rey Ponce, sons of Adalys Ponce who is also Quevedo Rodriguez's sister-in-law. ADN America sent several questions to Rey Ponce, but at the time of publishing this investigation, did not receive a response.
Since the Cuban government approved MSMEs, independent media and Cuban activists have expressed concerns about the true beneficiaries of the model, suggesting that none of the recent so-called changes will actually benefit the average Cuban citizen, and will instead only enrich economic allies of the regime.
"Neither [political prisoners] Aymara Nieto nor Lizandra Góngora will be part of an empowered private sector. It's not going to happen now, nor when they are released, because they are #HumanRights defenders, imprisoned for political reasons, and activists in #Cuba do not have that right," Cuban businesswoman and human rights activist Saily González warned on Twitter.
Ni Aymara Nieto ni Lizandra Góngora serán parte de un sector privado empoderado. No será ahora, porque están presas por motivos políticos, ni tampoco cuando sean liberadas, porque son defensoras de los #DDHH, y los activistas en #Cuba no tienen ese derecho.@USEmbCuba @POTUS pic.twitter.com/gBax1IuUVb— Saily González Velazquez (@SailydeAmarillo) May 17, 2022
Cuba operates with double standards regarding entrepreneurship, Gonzalez explained, and warned that political activists would never be part of the so-called "empowerment of the private sector."
Gonzalez's comments followed a statement in which he denounced that "the implementation of SMEs was a political strategy of the Cuban government to make the world believe that it promotes entrepreneurship," noting how the regime did not approve of the creation of MSMEs in all sectors of the economy.
According to our research, the concerns of many Cuban activists appear to be supported by documentary evidence. Several powerful MSMEs have been registered and are currently operated by members of the Cuban regime's inner circle.