Back in 1976, the Italian automaker Fiat had been badly battered by a global energy crisis and the resulting malaise infecting the global auto industry. In what Time Magazine described at the time as “a devastatingly ironic example of petropower,” Col. Muammar Gaddafi instructed his Libyan Arab Foreign Bank to invest some $415m into the Italian automaker, giving it a stake that would eventually grow to some 14 percent of the firm’s equity.
By 1986, Fiat’s Libyan stakeholders were becoming more trouble than they were worth. In the wake of the Lockerbie bombings, the US introduced sanctions on Libya, and Fiat’s Libyan connection left its attempts to bid for US military contracts (particularly those related to Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative) dead on arrival. As a result, Fiat and its shareholders bought back the entire 14 percent Libyan stake in the firm, presenting the Libyan Arab Foreign Bank-controlled Banca UBAE with a $3.1b check. And, according to what a Fiat spokesperson told us yesterday, that is where the story ends. But thanks to the now-ubiquitous Wikileaks, we have found that this story may in fact go farther than that. In fact, as the evidence stands right now, either the US State Department is working with bad information (which major news sources have yet to correct), or Fiat is lying about its ties to the embattled Gaddafi regime.
As with so many of the best stories in recent months, the major point of factual conflict in this tale comes from a Wikileaks-sourced US State Department memo. The memo, which does not appear at cablesearch.org, was provided to Reuters by an unnamed third party and was cited in a Reuters piece that focused on Gaddafi’s ownership of Wyndham Hotels. The Fiat connection isn’t made clear until well towards the bottom of the story, when Reuters reports
A 2006 U.S. State Department cable obtained by WikiLeaks and made available to Reuters by a third party describes LFICO/LAFICO [the Libyan Arab Foreign Investment Company]as Libya’s largest government-owned investment company, operating under the auspices of something called the “General People’s Committee” which has served as the Gaddafi government’s Ministry of Trade and Economy…
The State Department cable said that, as of 2006, LFICO’s holdings in Italy included 2 percent of Fiat, 15 percent of the Tamoil energy company, and 7.5 percent of Juventus, where a soccer-playing Gaddafi son, Saadi, once sat on the board. The cable said LFICO also had over $500 million worth of investments in Britain.
If the Gaddafi-controled LAFICO/LFICO held two percent of Fiat as recently as 2006, then the public narrative that had Fiat completely buying out its Libyan backers in 1986 is not completely accurate. In hopes of reconciling the discrepancy between the leaked memo (which presumably reflects the conclusions of the US intelligence community) and the public rejection of Libya’s equity stake in Fiat, we reached out to Fiat’s international media relations staff requesting clarification. The response, from Fiat’s Richard Gadeselli, came as follows:
Dear Mr Niedermeyer,Further to your email, I would mention that the Reuters report you refer to is incorrect. As too are other similar mentions that have appeared recently in the media concerning the LIA’s holdings in Fiat.The LIA sold all of its 14% shareholding in Fiat SpA in 1986 – ten years after its initial stake was bought. It no longer has a stake in Fiat SpA.I trust that this clarifies the matter.
Banca di Roma didn’t violate economic sanctions, because the stake was sold through Libyan companies rather than the Libyan government, Mr Brambilla said.Though they were sporadically enforced, the sanctions nevertheless limited Libya’s room for manoeuvring in some countries. For example, Libya’s UK bank accounts were frozen and funds such as dividends from the Metropole stake could not be transferred to Libya.That is why Lafico works to avoid detection when it makes investments, Mr Huwej says, adding that in everything it does, Lafico is aware the US is watching.As such Mr Huwej sometimes avoids doing business under Lafico’s name. A farming company in Egypt owned by Lafico is registered there as simply Agriculture Investment Co., he says.
Another strategy employed by Libya is to keep stakes small or indirect, particularly in banking companies. Though bank investments are a small slice of Libya’s holdings, they’re among the most scrutinised by the authorities, as access to banks means access to money and the ability to move it around the world.