Punctual, Carlos Ghosn leaves the baroque elevator on the top floor of the boutique hotel Albergo de Beirut, one of the most exquisite in Lebanon. Located in the Christian neighborhood, its restaurant is a privileged preserve of local high society. He is accompanied by his wife, Carole, and a stocky bodyguard with a thick beard. “In 45 minutes I have to leave for an important call to Japan,” the former president of Renault-Nissan apologizes after a handshake. Between gestures – every mention of Nissan his eyebrows tense – and alternating French, Arabic and English, he begins the interview this Thursday with EL PAÍS, the first one with a medium in Spanish since his arrest in Japan on November 19 2018. At 65, Ghosn has moved from a business icon to a fugitive from Japanese justice. He says he is the victim of a plot and has joined a small army of lawyers to defend himself in Lebanon, France and Japan. Retired in the European country, he says he wants to help the “tens of thousands of victims of Japanese justice.”
Question. How does it take to go from being a quasi in business to a bandit in Japan?
Reply. I ran Nissan from 1999 to 2016 and later I was chairman of the board of directors. In Japan I was surrounded by good words. I represented another form of management against the Japanese model, a novelty. And suddenly, everything changed. From one day to the next, prosecutors and a small team of Nissan management begin to say the opposite. I was stunned. Having such a strong reputation, they found it difficult to get rid of me without destroying my image before. That’s why they began to say that I was a dictator, a greedy … I am a man of determination, not a dictator.
P. It places the turning point in 2017, when Nissan’s results get worse. Then, according to its version, the plot begins to cook.
“I don’t attack anyone, I strike back”
R. That is the year in which I begin to exert more pressure on the administration, demanding an action plan after detecting a decline in the results. It was my duty. But some friction was created with the management team and, above all, between Hiroto Saikawa [el directivo que le sucedió al frente de Nissan] Y [el español] José Muñoz. The second wanted a more combative strategy in the US than I shared.
P. Why have they gone against you?
R. Because it was easy. I am a foreigner, I am known, and they threw everything on me.
P. After almost two decades in Japan, I should know well the ins and outs of business and justice.
R. No no no. Japanese justice is a black point in the country. When I was head of Nissan, I heard of surprising cases like the one of the vice president of Toyota arrested because he had ordered medication from his mother, and they had entered the country without declaring. It seemed strange. But they are relatively recent facts. When I arrived in the country and produced an opening and there was a desire for internationalization. Current Japan is much more closed and more nationalistic. There has been a mutation.
P. He attributes the plot to the attempt to torpedo a greater integration between Renault and Nissan.
R. It is obvious. Look at what that alliance is today. During the 17 years in which I built it, you will not have heard of a single internal discussion. And the results are two companies that sink. Well, Nissan has already sunk … It doubled its size between 1999 and 2017. Today it has no clear vision and I don’t know why anyone would want to buy Nissan. Since 2018, Renault and Nissan have lost a third of their capitalization on the stock market, while the automobile index rose 12%. They are colossal amounts. It is a mass hemorrhage.
“I built the Nissan-Renault alliance. Today there are two companies that sink”
P. He says he fled the injustice of a country where 99.4% of the accused are convicted. Do you think that in Lebanon you have 100% chance of being acquitted?
R. It is not certain that he will be tried in Lebanon. But in Lebanon, France or Brazil there are laws to defend themselves. That in Japan 99.4% of prosecutors win cases means that 99.4% of lawyers lose. It is dramatic. The Minister of Justice has said that Mr. Ghosn has to go to Japan to prove his innocence. All lawyers in the world have been thrown over to remember that in a democratic system there is a presumption of innocence and that what has to be proven is guilt.
P. What did he think when Beirut stepped after his escape?
R. The nightmare is over! I have lived many betrayals, although I have also seen people with great courage, courage and human courage.
“If my experience can serve the Lebanese Government, I put it at your service”
P. Why did you choose December 30 to run away?
R. Because it’s a time when people relax, go on vacation, ski … It was the good time. They surprised me when they arrested me and I surprised them by leaving.
P. He refuses to talk about how he escaped, but it is believed that he did it with a musical instrument box, two private planes, Lebanese militiamen …
R. The only two proven data are that I left my house on Sunday at noon, landed in Beirut on a private flight from Istanbul and entered Lebanon with my French passport and my Lebanese identity card. I will not say anything else.
P. Did you think you could create a diplomatic problem between Japan and Lebanon?
R. I do not think so. I am a Lebanese citizen and I have entered the country legally. I have just talked about Nissan and the prosecutors on a personal level without naming any Japanese policy makers. I do not want to say that the Government is not involved in the trick, but I have not wanted to talk about it to avoid deteriorating relations between the two countries.
P. How long is it forbidden to leave Lebanon?
R. My passport has been withdrawn and for now I cannot travel. I’m in no hurry to leave. I’m fine, among friends and family in a country that I appreciate. Not rush.
P. Have you taken Renault to court to request a retirement of about 800,000 euros a year?
R. Without going into the details of the process, I am claiming my rights in France, where there is an independent justice. I don’t ask for anything illegitimate. I think Renault has treated me incorrectly and my rights have been denied. I don’t attack anyone, I just fight back. Japan has attacked me by keeping me 14 months in prison. Without letting me talk to my wife or some of my children. They are not forms. And everything, why? Why haven’t I reported a salary that I never received?
P. Does he maintain his complete innocence?
R. Of course. Either he is innocent or he is guilty. There is no middle ground.
P. In Beirut he lives in a house that Nissan claims as company property.
R. It is not the first fallacy they say. That house is the subject of a dispute between Nissan and me in the hands of Lebanese justice. It was made for my use and within the framework of compensation.
P. What future plan do you have? He is retiring? Do you leave business?
R. We are far from retirement. I am officially retired in France. That does not mean that it is inactive. I will defend my rights there and in Japan. The Japanese experience has marked me. There are tens of thousands of people who suffer from this system and do not have the privilege of knowing their case, so I think I can be useful and help out.
P. Is there a political role in the Lebanese crisis? A politician has proposed him as Minister of Energy.
R. I refrain from all political ambition, which I have never had. And I will not change my mind at this age. I am part of this community and, if my experience can be useful to the new Government, I am willing to put it at the service of the country. I have made dramatic changes three times with Mitsubishi, Nissan and Renault with the usual results. The current situation is difficult in Lebanon, but it is not impossible to get out of it.
When asking his wife Carole if she is in favor of her husband taking an active role in Lebanon, she says yes: “I hope she can straighten the economy, because it is necessary. This country needs someone like Carlos. ” “It is the only point of discord between us,” the businessman ditches before proceeding with his call to Japan.