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    Fidel’s Dutch friend

    Fidel’s Dutch friend
    by Sophia Kornienko


    Willem van ‘t Wout is 74. We are sitting in his office, decorated in
    what I would call “Soviet” style, with lacquered furniture and crystal
    glasses on display. The Dutch businessman is wearing a modest suit and
    smoking a cigar.

    Willem van ‘t Wout

    Many years ago he started from scratch. Last year, the turnover of his
    Fondel Finance group reached 1,2 billion euros.

    Today, Van’t Wout is slowly withdrawing from business, selling his
    affiliates to his five children. Although the family holding is dealing
    in a variety of fields – from nickel to trading in buses, butter and
    cheese – Van’t Wout does have one curious special interest: dictators.

    It all began 40 years ago when, unaware of the American embargo, he
    bought a large nickel shipment in Cuba. Later this turned out to be a
    major unoccupied niche in the world market.

    “We had the deal before we knew about the embargo. Once we had signed
    the contract we had to find a solution. But then we could sell the
    material to countries that were not under American pressure. Our first
    customer was China.”

    Who are your customers today?

    “Now we have many customers across the world, but of course we don’t
    publish that because the American authorities still watch what is
    happening with Cuban nickel.”

    You are known to have a warm and friendly relationship with Castro. Your
    daughter has even designed clothes for him.

    “Oh, that was very funny. I was once having dinner with Fidel and I was
    wearing a suit made by my daughter. Fidel said, “I like your suit”. I
    said, “If you want it, it’s made by my daughter. She can make a few for
    you, too.” Then, to my big surprise, he said yes. My daughter went to
    Cuba and made a few outfits for him.”

    Is it true that he had never worn a suit before?

    “I don’t know, but anyway, he still does not like suits. Most of the
    time he wears military uniform.”

    You know Castro very well. What kind of person is he?

    “I like him a lot and he is very a very likable person. You can discuss
    anything with him. The nice thing is that if you are considered a friend
    of Cuba, which I am, you can touch the most delicate points and he will
    give you a reply. I’ve always found it a pleasure to talk to him and he
    has always been very open.”

    You have calculated that there are about 200 political prisoners in jail
    in Cuba today – and even concerning this topic you have managed to talk
    to Castro and he promised to “check on them”. Isn’t there a paradox in
    your friendship? He considers capitalism his main enemy, and yet it is
    thanks to the open market, thanks to the trade that you can cooperate.

    “I think that Fidel sees all businessmen in general as parasites. This
    is one of his basic ideas. And I’m sure that if he could only do without
    Westerners, he would. But he has to export. Last year, nickel was Cuba’s
    largest income source. Before, it had been tourism. And tourism is an
    even more delicate area than our business, because tourism brings a lot
    of really bad things to Cuba, such as prostitution and black markets.”

    Yet, human rights organizations are of a different opinion and, since
    you’re dealing with Castro, you have had serious arguments with some of

    “Well, that’s a funny thing. We’ve always had an argument with one
    Christian group called Pax Christi. I must say they are very nice
    people, but we have very different ideas. We do more for the Cubans than
    they. I remember they once succeeded in getting one man out of Cuba. And
    we have never tried to get anyone out of Cuba, but we have helped at
    least a thousand Cuban families to have a better life. So who is the
    better party here?”

    Still, haven’t you ever felt morally uncomfortable to cooperate with
    dictators and authoritative political regimes? Because there were others
    you dealt with besides Castro. Joseph Bros Tito, for example.

    “I remember, as a young man I lived on the same street as the American
    Consul, and I was doing business with Russia then. And sometimes, when
    we were letting our dogs out, we met. And he used to say to me that it
    was very bad to do business with Russia. I was very infantile and I
    stopped. Two years later, the Americans were doing business with Russia.
    We are talking 40-45 years ago. That was a good lesson for me. Now I
    always say that I do business with anyone I like.”

    Are there any countries or regimes with which you would never do business?

    “That’s a very difficult question. Let me say, we have been dealing with
    corrupt countries but we have never been involved in the corruption
    ourselves. Generally we’ve managed to do business at a very high level.”

    And as your new partner you’ve chosen Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez?

    “I think Chavez is a good guy. He simply says things that Americans
    don’t like. We are going to Venezuela this month. There is a meeting of
    Dutch commercial institutions there who try to develop good business
    with Venezuela, and we think that we have the good cards, because of our
    connection with Cuba.”

    You are convinced that Castro’s health is improving and you even plan to
    attend his 80th birthday party, postponed until 2 December this year.
    What are you going to give him as a present?

    “I have no idea yet. I don’t know what to give him. He does not care
    about presents. If you do something for the country, that’s what he
    would enjoy. But we’ll think of something modest.”

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