An Island for Weary Despots

Imagine a permanent homeland for deposed or discarded rulers

An illustration of a palm tree on a small island
Getty / Oliver Munday / The Atlantic
Editor’s Note: At a rally on October 16, 2020, Donald Trump floated the idea of leaving the United States, saying, “Could you imagine if I lose? I’m not going to feel so good. Maybe I’ll have to leave the country, I don’t know.” The president's remarks called to mind this essay, from our April 1992 issue, in which Cullen Murphy proposes a remote island where odious heads of government could flee.
Updated at 12:00 AM ET on October 19, 2020

When Erich Honecker, seventy-nine, the former East German Communist leader, was spirited out of Germany in March of last year and smuggled into the Soviet Union, he may have believed that his troubles were over. In Germany, Honecker was facing manslaughter charges in connection with a standing "shoot-to-kill" order he issued many years ago, under which East German border guards were authorized to kill East Germans trying to flee to the West. Seeing Honecker's predicament, the Soviet Union, which had long been a friend to East Germany, did the fraternal thing. It took Honecker in.

And then, abruptly, the Soviet Union ceased to exist. Honecker suddenly found himself under the jurisdiction of the newly independent Russian Federation, which last December responded favorably to a request by Germany, Russia's banker, for Honecker's extradition. Honecker fled to the Chilean embassy—the ambassador was an old friend—and began casting about for a country where he could settle permanently (provided that he could get safe passage out of Russia). Honecker and his wife, Margot, eventually came to realize that the countries willing to give them permanent asylum were only three: Chile, North Korea, and Cuba.

This is but the most recent episode in a long-running series in which discarded rulers of oppressive states have sought to grope their way to a globally sanctioned limbo. It is a sorry spectacle whenever it occurs, and deeply bothersome for somewhat contradictory reasons. First, on the level of principle, the fact that leaders on the lam manage to find safe haven at all means that they have eluded the clutches of justice. Second, as pragmatic observers have frequently pointed out, the fact that finding safe haven can prove difficult or impossible sometimes keeps autocrats clinging to their jobs longer than they otherwise might. Beyond those considerations is the fact that these people and their families seldom just go away. The Marcoses, the Duvaliers, the Amins, the Somozas—they make news for the rest of their lives, often while living in galling comfort and continuing to involve themselves unhelpfully in events back home.

This state of affairs is untidy, unsatisfying, and inefficient, and each frenzied new departure of an odious head of government prompts editorialists to throw up their hands and wonder if there must not be some better way. A few years ago, at a time when Panama's recent ruler, Manuel Noriega, was clinging desperately to sanctuary in the local Vatican embassy, The Economist suggested that perhaps the solution was to put people like Noriega and Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu "all together in a remote spot" where they could pass their days comfortably under United Nations supervision. This idea owes much to Viscount Castlereagh, who in 1815 oversaw Napoleon's successful dispatch to the island of Saint Helena, in the South Atlantic, and it has always had much to recommend it. But no concrete steps in that direction have yet been taken, perhaps for lack of firm answers to some fundamental questions. Where in the modern world, precisely should that "remote spot" be? Should we not try to strike a balance between pragmatism and justice: offering refuge with the one hand, yes, but exacting retribution with the other? And if so, by what means can this be accomplished?

Happily, the answer to the first of these questions may have just come, inadvertently, from Fidel Castro, who has reason of late to be thinking about such things. According to an article by Benito Alonso Artigas in a recent issue of the Cuban émigré newspaper Diario Las Américas, which was brought to my attention by a friend, "The criminals Fidel and Raúl Castro Ruz have tried to rent, buy, or receive a grant of the Island of Socotra, in the Indian Ocean." The intention, apparently, is to secure a place of asylum in the event that life in Havana becomes untenable. Socotra is a windswept island of temperate clime that lies in shark-infested waters midway between the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. It is mountainous, has only a small airstrip to which there are no scheduled flights, and is inaccessible to shipping during the monsoon season. It is sparsely inhabited—cattle outnumber people—and is known in the region mostly for its superior ghee, which is a kind of clarified butter. Socotra is owned by Yemen, and if Yemen is seriously interested in selling, the new Secretary-General of the United Nations, Boutros Boutros Ghali, should as one of his first official acts arrange for the UN to outbid Cuba, acquire the island, and turn part of it into a permanent homeland for deposed or weary despots. It could perhaps be known as The Last Resort.

Here is the lure: Tyrants could check in at The Last Resort at any time in their careers, and could bring with them as much money as they wished, no questions asked. Their persons and their fortunes would be off limits to law-enforcement agencies. The accommodations at their disposal, for which they would pay a high monthly rent, would be luxurious, and the management would make available various basic services, including a modern hospital and modern communications. Neither journalists nor tourists would be permitted on the island. The United Nations would widely publicize all these features of life on Socotra, and would guarantee the world community's acquiescence (however grudging) in the basic arrangement. All in all, Socotra would probably be seen by many of its potential guests as an attractive proposition—the option of first choice in the event of job-threatening hostilities at home.

So much for the enticements. It remains to be noted that certain features of life on Socotra—the fine print, as it were—would not be widely publicized. Indeed, many of these features would become apparent only as time unfolded. To begin with, having arrived on Socotra, the former heads of government would never be allowed to leave. (Accompanying staff and family members, on the other hand, would be free to leave, even encouraged to do so—but never permitted to return.) There is also the matter of the help. None of the natives currently living on Socotra can offer quite the right background for employment at The Last Resort, except maybe in the ghee shop, so labor would have to be imported. Because Socotra would be a United Nations operation, it would make sense to award various functions to selected member states. This could be done by bearing in mind the old joke about which nationalities will be doing what in heaven and in hell. The medical-care system, for example, might appropriately be run by the Russians, and the telephone system by the Irish (though the Mexicans could be asked to make the wake-up calls). All the servants at The Last Resort should be French. Complaints could be handled by bureaucrats seconded from Italian government ministries. The lifeguards would be Mongolian, the sommeliers Iranian, the meter maids from Singapore. Robert J. Lurtsema would control the public-address system.

It would be natural to have the English run the kitchens, but responsibility for the cooking might in fact be handled a little differently. One promising suggestion is that each newly arrived fugitive would get to have his cooks prepare all the meals at The Last Resort until the next fugitive arrived. Thus, if Mengistu Haile Mariam were to show up, the cuisine would suddenly become Ethiopian. Some time later, with the arrival of, say, Jerry Rawlings, it would become Ghanaian. The advent of the occasional alleged anthropophagite, like Jean-Bédel Bokassa, would be a culinary event. If nothing else, such a regime in the kitchen would ensure rapt attention on Socotra to news of the latest coup. The English could be compensated for the loss of the menu by being given charge of the staff's trade union.

There would have to be a bank. In one of his books, The Getaway, the novelist Jim Thompson imagined a bank owned by a man known as El Rey, who operates a community in Mexico where criminals in hiding can safely run to ground with their assets.

The bank makes no loans, of course. Who would it make them to? So the only available source of revenue is interest, paid by the depositor rather than to him. On balances of one hundred thousand dollars or more, the rate is six percent; but on lesser sums it rises sharply, reaching a murderous twenty-five percent on amounts of fifty thousand and under.

Thompson's novel was published in 1958, and the dollar amounts will thus seem quaint. But the overall way of doing business would be appropriate for the Bank of Socotra. All profits would accrue to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

As long as the guests at The Last Resort had money, they could spend as much of it as they pleased on imports, through a UN facility to be established in Hadibu, Socotra's one harbor, and operated jointly by Lebanese accountants and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. However, one friend suggests the following stipulation: the money could be spent only on items native to or manufactured in a guest's country of origin. The stipulation would apply to everything: furniture, electronics, clothing, art, literature, television programs. One result would be a much-needed influx of capital from Socotra into some very poor economies. Guests on Socotra would also no doubt start praying fervently for the rapid modernization of their native lands.

What would happen when one or more residents of The Last Resort ran out of money, as the procedures of the Bank of Socotra virtually guarantee? Obviously, these people would have to find work. The local economy has little to offer, save for the job of tending the island's 20,000 distinctive humpless kine. Perhaps a pattern would evolve whereby impoverished longtime residents would become the indentured servants of still-wealthy recent arrivals. Thus, for example, Idi Amin might wind up in the employ of a newly arrived Saddam Hussein—his cooks, after all, would be needing an extra sous chef or two for a while—who in turn might one day labor in the service of a Mobutu Sese Seko or, God forbid, a Hafez al-Assad. Upon a guest's death, any funds remaining in his account would revert to the United Nations.

To be sure, several operational matters concerning The Last Resort remain to be worked out. The day-to-day social dynamics of the establishment would almost certainly be problematic, deriving as they must from its peculiar demographics. There would be feuds, a black market, occasional bloodshed. The world, perhaps, can live with all that. On the whole, the advantages of the proposed arrangement, or some variant on it, seem clear. There is no reason, moreover, why its benefits could not one day be extended to cover international terrorists and rapacious multinational executives. And tinkering will surely introduce further refinements. Did I mention that the lingua franca of The Last Resort would be Sanskrit? That is the language from which the name Socotra derives. It means "island abode of bliss."

This article appears in the April 1992 print edition with the headline “The Last Resort.”