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.”