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Risk-taking Dutch executive behind Cuba's nickel trade.

Mention foreign corporations active in the Cuban economy, and the first entities that come to mind are Canadian mining giant Sherritt International, Spanish hotel chain Sol Melia, Brazilian oil conglomerate Petrobras and Italy's Telecom Italia.

Yet one company that's long flown under the radar is Dutch entity Indiana Finance BV, formerly Fondel International BV. The fact is that Fondel, owned by Rotterdam-based businessman Willem van 't Wout, has been something of a silent partner of Fidel Castro when it comes to at least one sector of the Cuban economy: nickel exports.

From the early 1960s onward, van 't Wout made the affirmative choice of pursuing the purchase of Cuba's nickel output (to be resold to undisclosed international buyers) during the height of the Cold War and the U.S. trade embargo that went with it.

Due to that political climate, van 't Wout--now 78--wisely kept a low profile and eventually conducted similar trade with other politically sensitive countries like Yugoslavia and later Ukraine and Azerbaijan.

"I remember, as a young man I lived on the same street as the American consul, and I was doing business with Russia then," he said during a 2006 interview with Radio Netherlands. "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 years ago. That was a good lesson for me. Now I always say that I do business with anyone I like."


Thumbing his nose at the U.S. embargo helped earn him a personal friendship with Fidel Castro, which in effect expanded his business activities in Cuba. One of Van 't Wout's other businesses in Cuba is Nirint Shipping, which transports industrial cargo between that country and various ports in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Russia.

Given the Cuba-related legal hassles that perenially come out of Washington, it's no wonder Van 't Wout has chosen not to talk to CubaNews or any other U.S. media outlet about his business with the Marxist island.

Fondel International doesn't release sales figures. However, the Dutch newspaper Het Financieele Dagblad said the company reported 2005 sales of 1.5 billion euro, with 20% of those revenues coming from the nickel trade--much of it generated by sales of Cuban nickel to undisclosed nations.


Aside from van 't Wout's long-standing lucrative trade with Cuba, his personal links to Fidel were reinforced some years ago, when the Cuban leader accepted van 't Wout's offer to have his fashion designer daughter Merel make some business suits for Castro's press visits abroad.

In addition, Van 't Wout was the only Dutchman invited to the Havana celebration of Fidel's 80th birthday in August 2006. That same year, Van 't Wout's son-in-law Ronald closed a deal to ship 200 used Rotterdam city buses to Cuba.

However, according to Het Financieele Dagblad, that friendship did not prevent the Cuban state entity Cubaniquel from phasing out Fondel's nickel purchases from its two plants in Holguin in late 2006. Cubaniquel's actions were the result of the Cuban government's desire to expand commerce with China, which by 2006 had become Cuba's second-largest trading partner after Venezuela.

With all the money Fondel made from Cuba in the past, Van 't Wout took in stride Cuba's decision to phase him out. "This is a drain for us, yes, but we have plenty of other activities [in Cuba]," he said during a January 2007 interview with the newspaper.

These days, along with Fondel, Van 't Wout and his family conduct international business under the name of Indiana Finance BV. Its director, Eric Marinus, once ran the Havana branches of ING Barings and Netherlands Caribbean Bank (NCB).

Back in the mid-90s, NCB was created as a joint venture of ING Barings and two Cuban entities, Banco Popular de Ahorro and Grupo Acemex. NCB was later used by the Cuban food purchasing agency Alimport to pay for U.S. food exports to Cuba.

In 2006, the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control put NCB on the dreaded "Specially Designated National" list of individuals and institutions barred from doing business with the United States.

Incidentally, Reuters noted that ING lost its banking business in Havana as Fondel's nickel trade with the island plummeted in late 2006. By July 2007, ING had pulled out of Cuba altogether.

Details: Willem van 't Wout, Indiana Finance BV, Boezembocht 23, 3034-KA Rotterdam, Holland. Tel: +31 10 411-3421, Fax: +31 10 411-3423. Email:
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Author:Echevarria, Vito
Date:May 1, 2010
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