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November 3, 1999
Hunter From Karaikudi Helps Castro Recover Gold
Arthur J Pais
Sethu Raman remembers that his grandfather loved studying diamonds and determining their worth in the sprawling family mansion in Karaikudi in Tamil Nadu.
"I went to study geology because I was mesmerized by diamonds and gold," he says. "Our family was into many businesses, including timber and real estate, but diamonds fascinated me most."
His boyhood dreams occasionally included expeditions of looking for gold and diamonds in Malaya and Burma because his family had businesses in the region.
But if an astrologer had told the young Sethu Raman that several decades later he would successfully oversee an expedition to plumb the ocean off Cuba and begin recovering gold untouched since the 1500s, he would have asked the astrologer to change his profession.
"Going out of India was hardly on my mind during my college days," Raman says. "In fact, when I began teaching at Annamalai University (1963-64), I fell in love with what I was doing, I did not think for some time that I would go into business."
But his passion for geology led him to post-graduate studies to Austria and then to Canada where he would get his Ph D from Carleton University, work for nearly a decade for some of the top mining companies in the country and then establish his own company.
"At one point, I realized I was making millions for others," he recalls with a chuckle. "So I told myself in 1986 that I would start my own mining business and make my first million within 1,000 days."
"Guess what, it took me 224 days to make it."
Raman's Homer Gold Mines Limited has led exploration teams involved in the discovery and development of at least 10 significant gold, silver and base-metal deposits and mines in Canada, the United States, the Philippines and Cuba. Homer became the first North American company to acquire exploration rights in Cuba.
Today, as he prepares to fly to Cuba to continue the supervision of the seabed exploration, he would rather talk more about the expedition there.
Visa Gold Resources Inc -- in which he partners Doug Lewis, a former federal justice minister and solicitor-general -- is the first Western salvage company to explore what many geologists believe to be the richest collection of shipwrecked galleons in the world.
Visa Gold is a subsidiary of Homer Gold whose shares are traded on the Toronto Stock exchange. It is reportedly the first company owned by an Indian-Canadian to trade on the Toronto Stock Exchange.
At least 450 galleons carrying gold from Peru and other South American countries were sunk, by hurricanes and pirates, in the 16th and 17th centuries. They unloaded gold bullion, silver ingots, coins and emeralds, jewels and pearls.
Raman and Lewis's firm has received permission to salvage the treasures in an area near Havana's harbor. It is not a big area, but experts estimate believe the sunken treasure is worth $ 400 million. The exact nature of the business deal with the Cuban government is not disclosed. But business insiders believe that the government and Visa Gold will share equally their findings.
When a deal was signed with Cuban government last year, articles about the company's business coup spewed articles about the expedition in major Canadian publications, including The Toronto Star. The deal was so significant that the signing was attended by Keith Christie, Canadian ambassador to Cuba.
"Coming from Karaikudi, which has a rich tradition as a maritime power and diamond center, it was natural that I would begin wondering about sunken treasures in Cuba," Raman says.
"In 1492, Columbus went in search of Indians and landed in the Americas," he says, laughing softly. "Now, I have become the first Indian to search for what he and the Spanish conquerors lost in the bottom of the sea."
Last month, his treasure hunters discovered a gold chalice, a holy cross necklace, cannon balls and Chinese pottery more than 10 centuries old.
"This is just like finding King Tut's tomb," says David Coates, a spokesperson for Visa Gold. "Of course, this is also a story of greed, lust, robbing and pillaging."
Raman says greed was never evident in his dealing with the Cubans. "You may call this gold rush at the bottom of the ocean," he says laughing, speaking softly with a Canadian accent that still has traces of Tamil. "But we have approached this entire business using the most ethical and fair standards."
"For several decades many European companies have sought to strike the kind of deal we have managed to secure," he says. "Why didn't they succeed? Perhaps we convinced the government that we were going to be their partners in the best sense of the word."
Havana must have also been impressed with his knowledge about the latest gadgets available for undersea exploration.
Raman says his treasure hunters studied ancient maps, books, diaries and letters, and records and traced the paths of ships that sailed between the old world and the new. There could have been more than 12,000 ships that brought food and European products to the New World and took home gold and diamonds -- often pillaged. About 40 per cent of these ships sank long before reaching their destination.
"There is no road map in how we are going to continue the exploration," Lewis told reporters, adding that the final haul could prove to be the most lucrative maritime discovery of the 20th century. "From what we have seen, we feel tremendously encouraging."
Raman turned to Cuba following his intensely negative experiences in scouting the goldmines in Nicaragua in the early 1990s.
"On one hand I had to dodge the bullets as some of the defeated Sandinistas were holding out in mining towns," he says. "On the other, I had to listen to the demands by the Contras who wanted bribes. And these were not small bribes. They asked for something like 10 million American dollars."
So he turned to Cuba, after having stumbled across Cuban archaeological survey maps in Nicaraguan museums and libraries.
It was not easy making the contacts in Cuba and developing them into firm business relations.
"You need a lot of patience," he says.
When he first visited Cuba about eight years ago, blackouts were common, restaurants were few and rare outside Havana, and there were just about two gas stations in Havana open to foreigners. With the decline of the Soviet Union, Cuba's main benefactor and subsidizer, the economy had hit the rock bottom.
Yet he decided to push for the business opportunities there because there was far less corruption in Cuba than in many countries in the region, he says.
"And besides, I was an Indian from Canada who was seeking business in Cuba," he says. "Many people were curious about my background."
For his base metal venture, Raman recalls with a chuckle, he had to drive about 160 miles from his hotel in Havana to Santa Clara town and that meant "carrying 20-litre tank of gas in the car if something happened."
But soon he was fascinated by deep ocean exploration -- and now that is one of his consuming passions.
Over a decade-and-a-half, Cuba has been undergoing a lot of changes for the better, he says.
"Privatization, though still very limited, is helping to transform the economy," he explains.
"I see the situation in Cuba in simple terms," he says. "That country has the most undervalued assets in relation to what is going on in the rest of the world."
The potential in Cuba would be "the envy of the world," he says, adding that for quite some time "We won't have to compete with America."
But he is also looking forward to the day America will lift the embargo against Castro's government.
"Cuba will achieve its real value when the American embargo is lifted. And when that happens firms like ours will be in big demand because we have known the working of this country for a long time."
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