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Saturday, 11 January 2003 00:00
Should Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein be forced into exile, he'll join a long list of rich and infamous.

By Clive Simmons

The spot for all good dictators to hunker down is Club Panama

AS THE US prepares to invade Iraq, Saddam Hussein reportedly has been offered asylum in Moscow, and also in Dubai.

The Russian Foreign Ministry has denied it, and the sheiks in Dubai are keeping mum, but should Saddam accept such an offer he will join a stream of former dictators and toppled presidents who have taken the maxim "when the going gets tough, the tough get going" to heart, and made a fast exit when their regimes were in danger of imminent collapse.

But even when they've been booted out of their homelands, they always seem to land on their feet. Just how large are they living? Why aren't they languishing in jail, and what did happen to all that money?

So, in no particular order of importance, here's an update on the lifestyles of the rich, autocratic and presently indisposed:

Haiti has had its share of strongmen, including Colonel Michel-Joseph Francois, who helped topple Haiti's president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in 1991, and proceeded to terrorise his countrymen as chief of the police for the next three years. In the wash-up, 4000 Haitians were killed.

In 1994, Francois fled to the Dominican Republic, where he lived off a half-interest in his brother's car-wash business and was able to buy a $400,000 house in a ritzy suburb and send his kids to a private school.

Things turned awry when the Dominican Republic deported him for plotting a coup in Haiti, and Francois hightailed it to Honduras, where he started managing a furniture store. It was here that US prosecutors nabbed him for smuggling 30 tonnes of cocaine and heroin into the US from his private airstrip in Haiti, while taking millions in bribes from a Colombian drug cartel.

Francois denied it all -- of course -- and stewed in prison until the Honduran Supreme Court rejected US extradition efforts for lack of evidence and sent the killer back to the furniture store.

The US became less than enthusiastic about the whole matter when Francois hinted that he might be forced to reveal what he knew about two CIA-created and funded groups with which he was associated -- Haiti's national intelligence service and a death-squad, Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti -- and details of military training he received at the US Army's notorious School of the Americas in Georgia. Nothing has been heard from him since.

His mate, General Raoul Cedras, should have told him that the spot for all good dictators to hunker down is a place known as Club Panama. Thanks to its liberal asylum policy and its banking secrecy laws, the tiny isthmus is now home to a stunning rogues' gallery of exiled strongmen.

Cedras, who executed the usual atrocities -- murder, assassination, torture, in between allegedly running the country's drug trade -- until ousted by the Americans who helped install him, now rules supreme over a computer graphics shop in downtown Panama City. He's kicking back with his old friend, General Philippe Biamby, who helped him storm the corridors of power and then helped subdue the locals as the army's chief-of-staff.

The two are living high on the hog on the $79 million the US Government unfroze for them when they complained that they had to feed their people. Predictably, the money promptly "disappeared" from state coffers hours after being transferred.

They both agreed to leave the country to avoid a spot of needless bloodshed when their perfidy was discovered, and the US flew Cedras and Biamby to Panama, and gave Cedras a rent-free beach villa in Panama.

The US also agreed to lease the three homes Cedras had to leave behind in Haiti for $12,000 a month. Cedras and Biamby both received asylum in Panama some time later.

Just across town, Abdala Bucaram, the ex-presidente of Ecuador, is also enjoying Panama's hospitality. Known as El Loco (The Crazy One) for his erratic behaviour, Bucaram has created his own brand of milk, (Abdalact) with his smiling face on the carton, cavorted with scantily dressed women, invited Lorena Bobbitt (who gained worldwide notoriety for cutting off her husband's penis) to the palace, cut a CD with a Uruguayan rock group -- called A Crazy Man In Love -- and dressed up as Batman.

His people were not enamoured with these antics, and the Ecuadorian Congress deposed him in February 1997 for "mental incapacity"; an ouster his citizens heartily ratified in a 3-to-1 vote.

The country's Supreme Court accused him of lifting $88 million from government coffers during his six-month presidency, a charge El Loco, of course, has hotly denied. When he's not busy plotting his comeback, he can be seen spending up big at the crap tables in Panama City's casinos.

Another expatriate, Guatemalan strongman Jorge Serrano, has his latest investment: the 3000ha Hacienda Country Club near Panama's international airport, replete with polo fields and luxury housing. Serrano fled in 1993 to
the safety of Panama after he botched an attempt to dissolve Guatemala's Congress and grab power for himself.

He also owns a chain of fast-food restaurants whose name translates roughly as "The Country Chicken" and has had success as a racehorse owner.

Panama has not only refused three requests from Guatemala to extradite him, but when then Panamanian President Ernesto Perez Balladares appeared with Serrano to lay the first stone at his lavish little club, he enraged almost everybody. Balladares was later indicted in a Chinese-smuggling scandal.

Some exiles don't give up quite so easily or gracefully. Take Leka I of Albania, the son of Albania's first, last, and only king, King Zog -- and a cousin of Richard Nixon. He was spirited from Albania as an infant after Enver Hoxha -- a dictator who preferred the sobriquet Uncle Enver -- took power. Both the British and the US tried to return him to power in the 1950s by launching a clandestine raid from Italy, but it was thwarted by Britain's infamous double agent Kim Philby.

Leka thought he had a shot at the throne when Albania held a referendum on the monarchy question in June 1997 at his request. But before the results of the referendum were in, Leka -- donning camouflage and an Uzi sub-machinegun -- led a crowd of armed protesters outside the election building in Tirana, and by the time votes were counted (two to one against a monarchy), one person lay dead and several others were injured in a shootout with the police.

Wanted for questioning, Leka headed off to fight another day at his farm outside Johannesburg. A large cache of arms was found in his home, which included AK-47s and grenade launchers. His diplomatic privileges were summarily revoked.

Imelda Marcos, who once told a journalist that if you "could count your money, then you aren't truly rich" demanded a "hero's burial" for embalmed hubby Ferdinand, seven years after he keeled over in Hawaii. For three days, the local electric utility cut off the juice to Ferdy's airconditioned mausoleum in Imelda's backyard in a dispute over unpaid bills.

She still refuses to bury him in Ilocos Norte -- the ancestral home -- hoping that one day she will be able to bury him in Manila where he spent so much time plundering the country's resources. Their wealth -- which he claimed came from finding Yamashita's Gold in a tunnel -- has been conservatively estimated at $30 billion.

Now a congresswoman, Imelda was indicted on money-laundering charges in 2001.

Her erstwhile friend, former president of Panama Manuel Noriega, fell foul of the US when he refused to participate in its Contra war, and soon found himself kidnapped by US forces who promptly invaded the country and put the Maximum Leader on a flight to Florida. Since then, he has been chilling in a prison in Miami after being sentenced to 40 years on drug, racketeering and money-laundering charges.

Recently, he made a break for cyber-freedom when he agreed to take part in an online chat to plug his memoirs. The conference was cancelled -- something about not being allowed to use a modem in jail -- but all is not lost: the Maximum One has started collecting his $1500-a-month pension from the Panamanian Government.

Disgraced and displaced, Carlos Salinas de Gotari, the former Mexican president, is living in exile in Dalkey, Ireland; home to author Maeve Binchy and filmmaker Neil Jordan.

THIS is probably because Ireland has no extradition treaty with Mexico. Gotari has been blamed for everything from the disastrous crash of the Mexican economy in 1994 to a rash of political assassinations. US prosecutors have linked him and his brother Raul to some Mexican drug lords. There also is a matter of some missing money -- as much as $1 billion -- but investigators have yet to connect Carlos to the pilfered pesos that were found stashed away in a Swiss bank account.

Meanwhile, Raul was sentenced to imprisonment for the murder of Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu, who was Mexico's deputy attorney-general at the time.

Recently, he broke his media silence to declare that his brother's government had been victim to a conspiracy; dark forces whom he declined to name. He also claimed that he was targeted for assassination, and that he had photos of hitmen lurking in the bushes to prove it.

The regime of Augusto Pinochet was probably the bloodiest in South America, but before he agreed to leave office he retrospectively awarded himself immunity from prosecution, and made himself Commander Emeritus-for-life just to ensure that all went well.

In the decade since his departure, Pinochet has contented himself with writing four volumes of memoirs and purchasing arms for Chile. The issue of Pinochet's wealth has not really been touched on, but according to Dr Robinson Rojas, who lectures at the Centre for Chinese Studies in London, his is "one of the richest families in Latin America".

Their assets are alleged to include Soquimich, the largest producer of iodine and nitrate fertiliser in Chile. It has a worldwide distribution network, which exports to Britain, and its subsidiary, the Nitrate Corporation of Chile, is a partner with Blue Circle -- the UK cement giant -- in a manufacturing operation in Chile.

Originally a state company, Soquimich was privatised during the Pinochet years and, after its privatisation, was headed by Julio Ponce, husband to Pinochet's middle daughter Veronica.

There also has been some disquiet over some questionable land dealings and two scandals involving his children -- some murky arms deals and a Chappaquiddick-type scandal -- but when questions were raised, Pinochet threatened to mobilise the army.

While most Haitians knew him as Baby Doc, those close to Jean-Claude Duvalier called him "Baskethead" -- though not to his face, of course.

He became president-for-life at the age of 19 but, in 1986, after simmering unrest boiled over, Duvalier and his family "retired" to a palatial villa near Cannes, paid for with some of the the $784 million he had looted from the Haitian treasury.

But a costly divorce, a spending spree by the little woman, and an international effort to freeze his assets has left Duvalier penniless.

Evicted from his villa in February 1994, Duvalier now lives outside Paris in a shabby cottage with his five dogs; dependent, he says, on the kindness of strangers. French Telecom recently cut off his phone because of unpaid bills.

If Saddam accepts the inevitable and saves his people some heartache, then he can always content himself with being the six-billion-dollar man. According to Forbes magazine, he owns a majority share in Hachette, a worldwide media conglomerate, and he can always live off the proceeds of his two novels. A musical is touted, and a television mini-series already is in production.



Last Updated on Wednesday, 22 September 2004 12:32
 

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