The Realist’s Weapon in the Fight for Democracy

Coaxing despots into a cushy exile is sometimes the best option.

A graphic that reads "Greetings from Panama" and features dictators' faces within the lettering
Getty; Joanne Imperio / The Atlantic

A tiny tropical paradise known as Contadora Island is a blip in the Gulf of Panama. Here, two disgraced dictators, brutal men who fled from certain death when their people turned against them, lived in exile. Reza Pahlavi, the last shah of Iran, and Raoul Cédras, the military dictator of Haiti, both once called Contadora home.

It was a fate better than both men deserved. Life in the tropics is not exactly punishment. But given that the U.S. and its allies are losing the global battle against autocracy, and that past strategies to rid the world of dictators haven’t worked, we should take the Contadora option seriously, imperfect and indeed odious as it may be. Every once in a while, the least-bad, realistic option may be to coax dictators into exile, letting them escape the justice they deserve so that the broken countries they leave behind can have a democratic fresh start.

A top foreign-policy priority for any democratic government should be reducing the number of autocrats and their influence. Look around and you can almost always trace global crises back to an autocrat. The war in Ukraine and global inflation lead back to Vladimir Putin. To avoid funding Putin’s war requires buying oil from Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia or Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela instead. Theocratic tyrants in Iran are trying to get world-destabilizing nuclear weapons and Kim Jong Un in North Korea already has them. World War III could be triggered in the Taiwan Strait by China’s Xi Jinping, who changed the constitution, allowing him to become president for life.

Why don’t dictators just quit while they’re ahead? Most of them have millions or even billions stashed away in untraceable bank accounts. Many have yachts on several seas and villas on multiple continents. They could cash in for a few years while tasting the thrill of absolute power, then sip sangria into old age.

Most dictators don’t have that choice, however. To stay in power, autocrats develop complex networks of elites whom they pay off, a phenomenon that political scientists sometimes call “patronage.” Despots are the linchpin of those networks; if they go, the money may dry up, or worse, go to rivals within the elite, which means that many oligarchs and generals would fight back against any proposed retirement scheme. More significant, dictators must be ruthless and make enemies to stay in power. The second an autocrat loses power, those adversaries will pounce.

Transitions don’t generally end well for the autocrat. In sub-Saharan Africa over the past 50 years, for example, close to half of autocrats who lost power have ended up in prison, in another country for the remainder of their life, or in a casket. Most therefore cling to palace life, rigging elections, killing opponents, and crushing dissent. The more likely they are to face jail or death if they leave office, the stronger the incentive to fight to stay in power forever.

Waiting autocrats out isn’t a good option. After all, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, of Equatorial Guinea, took power in 1979 and, more than 40 years later, is still ruling. Kim Jong Un is just 38 years old. He could plausibly be ruling in 2072.

For decades, hawks in Washington and London pushed for a military solution to democratize dictatorships. They got their way with the Iraq War. Now Afghanistan is back in Taliban control, Libya is a disaster, and the notion of regime change by force has few advocates. Economic sanctions, which often squeeze vulnerable civilians more than the elites (who can take the hit), rarely live up to their lofty expectations.

Outside actors can help amplify the consequences of an autocrat’s miscalculation (as the West has done by arming Ukraine and putting pressure on Putin’s enablers). And once a dictator has fallen, external forces may succeed in imposing hard-nosed punishment: a one-way ticket to the International Criminal Court or extradition to a jail cell that doesn’t have easily bribed guards or a revolving door (as with the warlord Charles Taylor, who’s now serving time in northern England).

Short of that, the best window for action comes when a dictatorship is already fragile—during mass protests, coup attempts, or an uprising. Dictators, in these moments, tend to consider their options, and may be willing to accept permanent exile. Putin is not going to be coaxed from power, nor is Xi. But for many autocrats who run small and midsize powers, a sweet enough offer in a moment of crisis may be the most realistic route to peace and a shot at democracy.

In September 1994, Washington was engaged in a tense standoff with Cédras, Haiti’s dictator. President Bill Clinton anchored gunboats off Haiti’s shores while trying to convince Cédras to leave power without a fight. Ultimately, money and safe passage were enough. American negotiators, including former President Jimmy Carter and General Colin Powell, bargained with Cédras and reportedly gave him an exit package worth about a million dollars. (Cédras also reportedly insisted that the United States government rent out his mother-in-law’s villa for the fee of several thousand dollars a month.) Cédras went to Contadora Island; as of 2008, he still lived in Panama.

More recent was the peculiar case of Yahya Jammeh, the Gambian dictator who had pledged to rule “for a billion years.” In 2016, a shocking election result was announced: The dictator had lost. Jammeh, in a rambling but jovial phone call broadcast live on television, congratulated his opponent, Adama Barrow, on his victory. Soon thereafter, Barrow’s party made clear that Jammeh would be prosecuted for his crimes, and that the government would claw back his stolen millions.

Immediately, Jammeh changed course. He rescinded his congratulations, rejected the election results, and pledged to stay in power. Jammeh also began to amass a mercenary army in the capital, ready to stay in power by force if necessary. After years of horrific crimes and corruption, justice was sorely needed but looked like it was going to come at a very high price for the people of The Gambia, in the form of a bloody conflict that might have left them with the same regime in the end.

But then a regional bloc of West African states came to the rescue. They gave Jammeh the choice between the carrot and the stick. Leave on your own terms or face invasion. Jammeh left The Gambia willingly, reportedly carrying bags of cash and loading some of his favorite luxury cars onto a cargo plane. He now lives in Equatorial Guinea, under the protection of Obiang. The Gambia got its fresh start.

Neither Haiti nor The Gambia is a beacon of democracy, but life is certainly better than it would have been if Cédras and Jammeh were still in charge. Both countries were given a fresh start, a chance for lasting reform, and the hope of a future without a dictator. In both instances, the costs were comparatively minor: some cash, cars, and monthly rent to stave off mass violence while pushing a dangerous megalomaniac out of power.

Exile is not the only flexible approach to luring dictators away from the palace. The Ibrahim Prize gives $5 million to African heads of state who leave power in accordance with their constitutional mandate (for nine of the 15 years that it’s been offered, no candidate has met the criteria). A program also used to exist at Boston University that would appoint former African heads of state to a prestigious fellowship, laundering their reputations if not their millions. It was reportedly offered to Laurent Gbagbo, the former president of Ivory Coast, who had previously been a university lecturer. Rather than head to Boston, Gbagbo tried to cling to power, launched a civil war, and ended up at the International Criminal Court instead. (Boston probably sounded pretty good from his jail cell in The Hague.)

Whenever possible, accountability and justice should be paramount, the twin goals of post-dictator transitions. The International Criminal Court is still a worthy ideal. Torture victims, the families of dissidents who have disappeared, and the millions of families who suffer under ruthless dictators deserve to see real accountability from their oppressor.

I’m making an argument rooted not in ideals or even basic fairness, but in realism. For many of the people I’ve spoken with in The Gambia, the choice they faced in 2016 was not between justice and injustice, but between spending more decades under Jammeh’s oppression or watching him leave with some fancy cars. Better that he’s gone, several told me. A golden parachute is too generous, but golden handcuffs—of house arrest in a safe place to live out the remainder of life—might be an injustice they could stomach.

Some might argue that the golden-handcuffs option would create a moral hazard, encouraging dictators to believe that they will never face justice for their crimes. But most dictators escape justice anyway, dying of old age, or at the hand of a rival or an angry mob. A policy of safe passage would more likely increase transitions of dictators who otherwise would have fought to the bitter end to stay in power, rather than decrease the amount of justice served.

And the option wouldn’t be available to everyone. Nobody could stomach amnesty and exile for the worst of the worst, like Charles Taylor or Bashar al-Assad or Vladimir Putin. But most despots don’t kill tens of thousands, or millions, of people, and the less-monstrous tyrants are the ones who are most likely to be tempted by exile anyway.

In a world lurching toward authoritarianism, how much should we hold our nose to give innocent civilians a shot at liberation from a dictator? There may be a place for exile in fighting for democracy.