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HAITI: The Fall of a Shark

4 minute read

As chief thug and extortionist for the late François (“Papa Doc”) Duvalier, Luckner Cambronne used to be the second most feared man in Haiti. After Papa Doc’s death in April last year, Cambronne appeared to be on the verge of becoming No. 1. Though Jean-Claude (“Baby Doc”) Duvalier, 21, succeeded his father as President for Life, it sometimes seemed in the early stages of his rule that the cunning Cambronne was actually pulling the strings of power. But last week Cambronne was headed into exile, a puppeteer apparently cut adrift by his puppet.

In the boldest move since he took office, Baby Doc dismissed Cambronne from his post as Minister of Interior and National Defense. No official reasons were given, but it seemed clear that Jean-Claude (undoubtedly encouraged by his strong-willed sister Marie-Denise) had finally decided that Cambronne, 42, had become too openly ambitious. For one thing, Cambronne had recently been pressing to be formally named Prime Minister; for another, his avarice was hindering Haiti’s attempts to improve its international image and thereby its chances of getting aid from the U.S. Before news of the firing was broadcast, Jean-Claude guaranteed his former éminence grise safety if he remained in Haiti. But Cambronne, long accustomed to breaking such promises himself, took refuge instead in the Colombian embassy at Port-au-Prince. He was expected to fly later to Colombia, and then perhaps on to the U.S.

Wherever he ends up, Cambronne will not need welfare assistance. In more than a decade of plundering public funds, intimidating businessmen into making “donations” and building his own considerable business empire, he has amassed a fortune estimated as high as $10 million, an amount equal to one-third of the national budget of Haiti, and has probably secreted much of it abroad. Cambronne’s commercial interests included monopoly control of Haiti’s fruit exports and lumber production, a large coffee exporting firm and Ibo Tours (a travel agency that dominated Haiti’s lucrative quickie-divorce market for Americans). He has also trafficked in narcotics and was the silent partner in a firm that paid poor Haitians a pittance for their blood and then resold it at a huge profit in the U.S. Last week Baby Doc terminated the blood business and moved toward nationalizing Cambronne’s other enterprises.

Flaunted Wealth. The son of a poor preacher, Cambronne was a bank teller before he met Papa Doc in 1957, the year that Duvalier came to power. At first Cambronne was little more than a messenger for the cruel dictator. But within two years he was one of his favorite aides. Cambronne helped establish his credentials by setting up the National Renovation Movement, which was essentially a front for extortion. Funds would be collected from businessmen ostensibly to rebuild a slum or pave a road, but most of the money would end up in the pockets of Duvalier and his sly henchman. Soon Cambronne was flaunting his new-found wealth: he became an habitué of the most popular brothels and a high-stakes poker player. He also developed a fondness for expensive sharkskin suits, which he usually wore with welder-black sunglasses.

After Papa Doc died, it soon became clear that there was not enough room behind the throne for both Cambronne and Marie-Denise. Cambronne first managed to get Marie-Denise and her husband Max Dominique ordered out of the country. A few months later, while the Dominiques were vacationing in Acapulco, he had Max fired from his post as Haitian ambassador to Paris. After living in exile in Paris and Washington, D.C., for several months, the persistent Marie-Denise turned up in Haiti again last September. Haitian exiles in the U.S. soon speculated that there would be another showdown and this time Marie-Denise would win. It was not long after she returned to Washington that Baby Doc announced Cambronne’s dismissal.

The fall of the shark in the sharkskin suits will not automatically turn Haiti into a model democracy. But it may serve as a warning to other rapacious Duvalierists to curb their excesses; it may also encourage more foreign investment and loans for the long-undernourished Haitian economy. Now that Baby Doc seems to be firmly in power and amenable to reform, he may even release the unknown number of political prisoners ruthlessly rounded up by his father and still rotting in notorious Fort Dimanche prison.

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