A Safe Home for Dictators

by Thomas Griffith

I’ve been wondering about a great opportunity that real estate promoters are missing. Why not buy an island in the Bahamas or in the South Pacific and make of it an exclusive colony for kings who have lost their kingdoms and dictators who have tumbled from power? Think of the millions of dollars waiting to be spent! Ownership would be restricted to rulers who had been in power long enough to put away a great fortune in Swiss bank accounts, and who now wander the world expensively homeless, unwelcome where they would most like to live, and welcome only in politically retrogressive places that don’t interest them.

Here they would have an island to themselves, their women, their fawning retainers, their guards. They would be spared the company of those who are rich but without rank, those whom the world knows as merchant princes or “artichoke kings.” They would also be spared the sight of those with rank but without fortune—who had been too austere, too doctrinaire, or too stupid to stash money abroad before their downfall. In this way they could avoid tiresome fanatics who wouldn’t really fit in. Royal blood would not be a condition of land ownership: after all, too many of the best prospects are but one generation removed from a sergeant in a motor pool.

The shahanshah, lugubrious and listless as he seems to be in exile, would, along with his shahbanou and the princes and princess, be a catch. Idi Amin, should he ever surface, would certainly qualify financially but would be less of a catch. Members of the Somoza, Trujillo, and Duvalier clans would be somewhere in between. A more difficult case is the royal family of Afghanistan. The king was sustained in Roman exile by the brother-in-law who overthrew him, but since the brother-in-law has been killed and replaced by a dour pro-Moscow ruler, the Afghan king seems too cash-poor and too frugal by nature to be a good prospect. On an adjoining beach some neighbors would be more engaging than others—Prince Sihanouk, if he ever left Peking, would surely be preferable, for example, to either Colonel Qaddafi of Libya or Park Chung Hee of South Korea, but ex-rulers can’t always be choosers.

The island’s principal attraction would not be its exclusivity or its congeniality (some of these fellows aren’t much practiced in congeniality). Its appeal would lie in its safety. Imagine an island guarded by men recruited from Savak, from Idi Amin’s praetorian guard, from Duvalier’s Tontons Maccoute, joined together into a force unexcelled in brutality, skulduggery, and the dutiful carrying out of discreet errands. At long last the wandering ex-rulers would feel safe from crackpots, terrorists, PLO gunmen, or avengers. And, as a dividend, they would be free from the prying press. So the sales brochures would reflect in the island’s very name its strongest selling point: “Welcome to Secura, the safest haven on earth.”

Only a few brochures would have to be printed. Though lavish, they would avoid a prissy concern with taste. For such a clientele, opulent eccentricity is the thing to encourage. Arising under palm trees and beside vast swimming pools would be palaces done in Hilton Moslem, movie-set Baroque, and Shangri-la Oriental, equipped with airconditioning and deep freezers but customized with cultural motifs from the homeland, as a reminder of glorious days. One would not expect to see many homes in Tudor Gothic, Georgian brick, or Bavarian castle, for the area that lies within several hundred miles of the equator would provide the liveliest set of prospects, the most rulers with valuable resources, acquisitive habits, and precarious tenure.

The besetting trouble with life in the tropics, as it is among rulers, is boredom. Secura’s clients would pose a special challenge. They would not be like those old European families living out their days in the Estoril, in an atmosphere full of Hapsburg jaws, resigned good manners, dreary cousins, and palm court music. These are men used to the grip of power, the tensions of tyranny, the thrill of autocratic whim. For many, the gambling casino would amuse, though it might be hard to set the stakes high enough to give some among them the thrill of a loss they couldn’t afford.

There is bound to be restlessness. By nature, these are not people who could entertain one another, as at a shipboard gala, with magic tricks or comic routines. The aides who followed them into exile were chosen on more practical grounds than their charms as courtiers, and their wives were women they married before the coup, when they were still noncoms living in the barracks.

Fortunately, expensive tastes can be quickly acquired, and Secura’s small main street would be reserved for necessities—a Swiss bank branch, a Van Cleef & Arpels boutique, half a dozen outposts of French and Italian couturiers, and several intimate, expensive restaurants, because man cannot live by couscous alone. A small movie house would provide cross-cultural variety to those who wearied of their videotapes and home movies of past levees. A school would not be necessary, since the children of rulers are used to being sent abroad and returning home only for the hols.

The daily newspaper would be scrupulously edited to avoid news unsettling to any of the island’s residents, and its most widely read feature would be its page after page of court calendars. There would also be the island’s cultural events to write about. A handsome library would be filled with hundreds of romances for the women, and equipped with carrels where scholarly sycophants could spend their days composing panegyrics to fallen regimes, or countering vilifications spread by those who had seized power. The art museum would be filled with the plunder of ancient China and treasures from Persepolis, as well as caskets of jewels, marvelous Impressionist paintings that had been stored abroad as investments, and rooms of antique furniture bought wholesale. At first people might prefer to display such trophies in their own palaces, but before long the museum director would cajole them into believing that his gallery was a dramatic place to vie with one another in displaying their purchases and timely expropriations.

The former rulers themselves would be likely to prize Secura’s elaborate sports complex. Having roughhoused their way to power, or having held it by force and intrigue, they are generally men of preening virility. They would find, besides swimming pools and tennis courts, horseback trails protected every few hundred yards by guards hidden in the bushes and equipped with automatic rifles. There would be hunting preserves and ranges for target practice: so many of these rulers, and those who serve them, have a special weakness for firearms and would want to keep their hands in.

Alongside the private airstrip would be the great parade ground. This might be the shah’s favorite spot. All he needs is a favorable ruling from some American judge to gain possession of a few of the latest tanks or jets he has already paid the Pentagon for, even though his spoilsport successors in Iran have cancelled the orders. With such expensive martial toys at his command, he could peaceably outgun anyone else on Secura. But his dominance of the annual military display might not last long. The arrival of later dethroned dictators would inevitably bring in more up-todate American, Soviet, or East German equipment to make him envious.

For Secura could not survive as a repository of currently homeless dictators; it would soon stagnate, lose its bristling, aggressive spirit, and lapse into indolence. The world must be made safe for future dictators. There would be but one protective restriction: so long as any fallen ruler lived on Secura, a successor from his own country would not be allowed to buy a palace there, to avoid generational conflict among palaće guards.

Secura’s first settlers would arrive with only whatever they got away with, though in cash terms this might be impressive. But how much better would it have been had they known in advance of their downfall and prepared a haven on Secura! King Hassan of Morocco, or a dozen emirs in the Persian Gulf, might be making plans right now. An even more exciting prospect is President Marcos of the Philippines and his haughty, ambitious wife, the fair Imelda.

Secrecy would of course be guaranteed to future clients. Once Secura was satisfied with the amount of money irrevocably available from a strongman’s Swiss bank account, a site could be chosen and building begun. To avoid gossip, the project would be identified in all contracts only by the first four numbers of the Swiss bank account. In fact, all present as well as future palaces would be so identified, to confuse unwanted strangers. And this is appropriate, too, for what else but Swiss funds would so unite all those who dwelled on Secura?

One touchy subject remains: how to govern a collection of headstrong men all used to one-man rule. Obviously no one could abide the thought of anyone over him, even serving in rotation. The solution would be to keep everything as managerial as possible, and for this purpose someone high up in the United Nations secretariat should be hired; he would be neutral, honest, and accustomed to coping with the whims and bluster of autocrats.

Occasionally, though, group decisions might be necessary. It would be folly to build anything for the purpose that looked like a parliamentary chamber, which would only revive unpleasant memories. Perhaps late one afternoon in the movie theater, when no one else is around, Secura’s once all-powerful strongmen could practice their first awkward attempt at democracy by a show of hands.