OTTAWA - Tourists headed to sunny Cuba this winter may want to think twice about visiting the Canadian embassy in Havana -- a new audit slams the operation for basic security problems.
The overcrowded, crumbling offices have failed to provide basic privacy or security, resulting in at least one assault.
"The Consular Program continues to operate without a booth to provide privacy and security when conducting interviews of clients," says the newly released audit, completed in June.
"This situation has already resulted in one known incident of assault on a consular staff member."
The lax security dates from at least 1997 when a previous inspection noted the same problems, which were not fixed for 12 years.
"Most of these issues have now been resolved," said Rodney Moore, a spokesman for the Foreign Affairs Department.
"The safety and security of Canadians visiting the embassy in Cuba is not a concern."
About 900,000 Canadians travel to Cuba each year, making it No. 5 on the list of holiday destinations for winter-weary Canucks.
The embassy's 15 Canadian-based staff process about 2,500 passport, citizenship and other legal applications each year, assisted by about 54 local Cuban employees.
The offices are also required to help Australian and Israeli citizens under agreements with those countries.
"There is no privacy for clients who must discuss private or sensitive matters," says the audit, with key passages censored.
Moore acknowledged that the section of the embassy that provides consular services is a scene of regular confrontations.
"There are incidents of verbal abuse and, at a lower frequency, physical intimidation every year in our present set-up," he said in an email.
"Renovations to this section, including construction of a privacy booth, are being completed."
The first phase of the $3 million in renovations is expected to be completed in March, he added.
The auditors noted that because Cuba is a cash-based society, embassy employees must regularly transfer large numbers of bank notes to and from the local bank.
"The risk to staff who must transport and assume responsibility for large amounts of cash is also of concern," says the audit. The bank run "is common knowledge."
The embassy's 80 guards are paid with cash-stuffed envelopes, all of which are given to the head guard to distribute. "This practice not only places the head guard at risk but also places him in a position of power over his colleagues."
The report suggested mission staff simply do not take security seriously.
"The mission faces a range of security threats, yet it has an inactive committee on security. A number of recommendations of a previous security review remain unaddressed."
The auditors also found there was no mass evacuation plan should Canadian citizens need to be quickly removed from Cuba because of a "civil emergency or rapidly deteriorating security situation."
Moore said the security committee has since been reactivated and an evacuation plan drawn up.
Canada leased the embassy building from the Cuban government in 1962. The white-washed, two-storey structure, about 80 years old, is surrounded by palm trees and a tall wire fence. The building is readily identified by large satellite dishes sprouting from the flat-topped roof.
One bright spot in the audit is the official residence of the ambassador, currently Jean-Pierre Juneau.
The report says it is in good condition, thanks in part to the services of a senior servant, maid, cook and gardener, along with several guards.