Send dangerous dictators to cushy exile

11/7/1999     Peoria Journal Star


We Need a Saint Helena. No. Not a volcanic eruption, though one is sometimes tempted to wish a Mt. St. Helen's on bothersome dictators. We need a place for our contemporary Napoleons to live out their days in safety and comfort.

This comes to mind following Gov. George Ryan's recent trip to Cuba. Ryan said Cubans would be better off without Fidel Castro, but he gave us no clue about the process of retiring the man. It seems to me that a first step would be finding him a place to go. Exile to Miami is not the answer, for obvious reasons.

It is awkward that there is no retirement policy in the world of international politics. To be sure, a president can name an unemployed politician to an ambassadorship, and those around him can always write a book or run for the Senate. But presidents have a tough time finding something useful to do themselves when their term is up.

Not all find public-service carpentry exciting, and college commencements come only in the spring. But it is far easier for a constitutionally elected president to turn over power to a successor, however much he detests him, than it is for a dictator like Castro to give up power.

For the dictator, the heart of the problem is not his successor's politics, but physical survival. Assassination is a real possibility - revenge is more powerful in human affairs than forgiving and forgetting. That's why few dictators will risk turning over authority even to friends. Spain's Francisco Franco kept enough power in his own hands to assure that neither domestic tranquillity nor his own sleep would be disturbed.

Today Spain is a democracy. But Franco had the cooperation of his enemies (all except the Basques, whose main complaint was not Franco, but being in Spain at all). Everyone understood how the period of transition would work, how fragile it was, and why Spain should not be put through another civil war. If Franco wanted a vain-glorious funeral monument, well, why not? Cheap at the price, and out in the country where you did not have to look at it.

Pinochet followed that model, taking Chile from a dictatorship to a democracy in clearly defined steps. But he made the mistake of traveling to Britain, where he was arrested on a warrant from a Spanish court - arrested the same day that Castro himself was making a state visit to Madrid. The message was clear: do not stop being dictator; if you can hang in for 40 years, you will be a hero. Alternatively, wear combat fatigues.

P.J. O'Rourke, a Rolling Stone correspondent, noted in the Oct. 20 Wall Street Journal that Pinochet's hat looked like "goose-step lousecage with the scrambled eggs on the brim." Military uniforms that make you look like an over-dressed Mussolini practically shout out "Nuremberg Trials!"

Calling an election, as did the Sandinistas, is effective if you have Uncle Sam promising to protect you if you lose. Of course, few people with an ego big enough to lead a revolution expect to be defeated in a free election, but most of them take out an insurance policy in the form of massive fraud and intimidation. When one does lose, it's best to realize that even his supporters consider his days over.

This kind of strongman is not part of the problem addressed here. But we have no policy toward those who hold onto power except to get rid of them when their usefulness is over (as, say, European communists after 1991).

Most dictators understand that they have to put a nest egg away so that when they flee the country in the middle of the night they can afford to buy a big house in Paris, hire muscular bodyguards and allow their wives and girlfriends to vacation in the plushest spas and shop in the most expensive stores. As a result, their retirement policy rests on a foundation of plundering their citizens unmercifully. This is not something we want.

A good number do not live to spend their savings. Since they refuse to give up power, and their secret police are dangerous, their enemies understand that assassination is the best means of bringing about a change in government. Since anyone who seizes power by force has to hold it by force, this often results only in the replacement of one dictator by another. This, too, is not something we want.

Is it immoral to give refuge to war criminals and gross violators of human rights? Perhaps, but is it better to encourage them to hold onto power until the last moment? Idi Amin (perhaps the most disgusting ex-ruler still living) fled in haste to Saudi Arabia. That was a rather good resolution of a tricky situation, but it is not one that is available to, say, Saddam Hussein.

That is why we need a non-sectarian, non-judgmental place of refuge for these people. A United Nations force could provide bodyguards to ensure not just their safety but the international community's by making it impossible for them to escape to seize power again. They could not issue propaganda, could not even write an e-mail without censorship.

It has to be a place free from interference from politics, courts and public opinion. It should be off international travel routes, with a very small local population, and not possess any natural resources beyond scenery. As an inducement to go, it has to offer some comfort: a place to sleep, to have coffee with a handful of friends and other ex-dictators (they could provide their own alcohol) and a couple of spare rooms for ultra-loyal friends.

Donald Trump or Ted Turner, who know something about the kind of housing these guys expect, could build attractive places out of pocket money. Better to spend the petty change than tolerate a petty dictator.

William E. Urban is Lee L. Morgan Professor of History and International Studies at Monmouth College.