By Jack Adamovic Davies
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cuban counterpart, Manuel Marrero Cruz, agreed this week after meeting in Phnom Penh to strengthen ties between their two countries, signing cooperation commitments in areas related to culture and At the sports.
Two years ago, a key member of Hun Sen’s inner circle was forging his own ties with the island nation through a secret deal to buy a stake in Cuba’s state tobacco company, according to two sources familiar with the business records and archives.
Chen Zhi, who was born in China but obtained Cambodian citizenship in 2014, is the founder of the Prince Group of Companies, one of the largest and most influential conglomerates in the Kingdom. She has interests in real estate, banking, finance, tourism, and food and beverage businesses, among others.
Chen was equally adept at navigating Cambodia’s political world, spending three years as an unpaid adviser to Interior Minister Sar Kheng, according to a 2017 announcement in the Royal Gazette. In October 2020, Hun Sen appointed Chen to be his own adviser with a rank equal to minister. The following year, in March, the Prince group announced a $3 million donation to Cambodia to help fight the pandemic.
The same month that Chen became Hun Sen’s adviser, Imperial Brands, a UK-based tobacco company that includes the Winston brand of cigarettes, sold its 50% stake in Habanos SA, a Havana-based company. which distributes brands like Montecristo and Cohiba cigars. , for 1.225 billion euros ($1.44 billion) to a secret consortium of investors. Cuba’s state-owned tobacco company Cubatabaco owns the other half of Habanos.
While the buyers sought to remain anonymous, sources with direct knowledge of the matter told RFA that Chen was one of the investors who bought a piece of Habanos.
“Chen Zhi bought the company more than a year and a half ago, but it was kept secret,” a regional tobacco industry professional told RFA, requesting anonymity as they were not. not allowed to speak to the press.
Another person familiar with Chen’s business dealings at the time of the transaction told RFA that he was involved in the takeover. The RFA source also named Hong Kong-listed casino operator Suncity Group Holdings among Habanos buyers. Suncity’s billionaire CEO Alvin Chau was arrested in Macau last November following an investigation into illegal online gambling and money laundering operations. Chau pleaded not guilty to all charges as his trial began last month.
“It belongs to Chen Zhi and Suncity,” the second source told RFA, requesting anonymity for fear of repercussions.
Suncity’s links to the deal had already been reported in May 2020 byBloombergwhich noted that the group’s chief financial officer, Chiu King-yan, was on the list of directors of Hong Kong-registered Allied Cigar Corp.
Allied was in turn the sole shareholder of a Spanish company called Allied Cigar Corporation SL, which was to take control of half of Imperial Brands in Habanos, the joint venture with the Cuban government.
Suncity denied to Bloomberg that it had anything to do with the deal.
In November 2020, control of Allied Cigar Corporation SL was transferred to Asia Uni Corp., according to Spanish corporate documents. The latest annual report of Asia Uni Corp. shows that its shares are held by a company registered in the British Virgin Islands.
BVI’s strict trade secrecy laws make it difficult to know the precise ownership composition of Asia Uni Corp. But a list of company directors on the same annual report shows a connection to Chen.
Among the company’s five directors is Qiu Wei Ren, a Cambodian citizen and director of companies owned by Chen in Hong Kong and Cambodia.
Like Chen, Qiu was born in China but naturalized Cambodian. The couple both received Cambodian King’s Medals in 2020 alongside a list of other Prince Group leaders, according to the Royal Gazette, which publishes government decisions in Cambodia.
Holidays in Havana
Chen can be seen at the banquet Hun Sen hosted this week in Phnom Penh to welcome Cruz to Cambodia in a photo posted on the longtime Cambodian strongman’s Facebook page.
Chen was also with Hun Sen when, after addressing the United Nations General Assembly in New York, the Prime Minister flew to Cuba on a Boeing business jet belonging to the Controversial Chinese businessman turned Cambodian diplomat Wang Yaohui, according to an affidavit submitted to a Singapore court by one of Wang’s most trusted lieutenants. Wang has been the subject of recent investigation reports by RFA exploring his troubled past in China and Africa and his rebirth in Cambodia, where he sought his legitimacy through political ties and covert investments in a British football club.
Photographs that were also posted on Hun Sen’s Facebook page show Chen among the entourage who met with Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel and National Assembly Speaker Esteban Lazo Hernández.
A Press release on the website of the Cuban National Assembly also notes that Chen was present in his capacity as adviser to Hun Sen.
Prince Group communications director Gabriel Tan asked RFA to direct any questions to the company’s public relations agency, Hill and Knowlton, which had not responded at the time of publication.