Get Out! How 8 Dictators Spent Their Exile Years

Image credit: 

As civil war rages in Libya, many observers are calling for Qaddafi to step down and go into exile. This wouldn’t be the first time an oppressive leader has stepped aside in exchange for a relatively comfortable retirement abroad. We’ve compiled this handy list of famous exiled emperors and dictators for reference.

1. Napoleon Bonaparte (Elba and St. Helena)

The original exiled dictator, Napoleon did it twice for good measure. This Corsican military genius was beloved by his French subjects but not so much by his foreign enemies, of whom there were a good number following his brutal conquest of Europe (which left 3.4 million dead).

After his disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812, Napoleon abdicated the throne in 1814 and was exiled to the pleasant island of Elba, just off the coast of Italy. It wasn't far enough: in 1815 Napoleon snuck back into France with his shock troops, assembled an army, and was barely defeated by the British and Prussians at Waterloo.

The British -- beyond furious about having to fight a whole extra war -- next exiled Napoleon to St. Helena, a tiny rock in the South Atlantic. Here Napoleon wrote his memoirs while maybe slowly being poisoned with arsenic; when he died in 1821 at the age of 51, his priest and servant allegedly removed and preserved his penis. The organ was bought by a Columbia University urologist, John K. Lattimer, for $3,000 in 1977.

2. Napoleon III (England)

Banking off his relation to his famous uncle, Louis Napoleon was elected president of the French Republic in 1848, then declared himself Emperor Napoleon III in 1851 (Napoleon Bonaparte’s son had briefly ruled as Napoleon II in 1815). A chip off the old Bonaparte block, Napoleon III tried to conquer everything the British hadn’t grabbed already, rebuilt Paris as a modern metropolis, and helped unify Italy. But for the most part his foreign schemes fell flatter than a failed soufflé: his puppet ruler of Mexico, Maximilian I, was overthrown and executed in 1867, and Napoleon III himself was overthrown in 1870 following a humiliating defeat by the Prussians at Sedan.

The ex-emperor lived out his remaining days in exile with his wife and son in Chislehurst, England, from whence he hoped to be re-elected president of France (good luck) and lobbied the British parliament to create an International Arbitration Congress—a farsighted precursor to the United Nations (it never happened). He died in 1873 during an operation to treat a bladder stone and was buried in a sarcophagus donated by Queen Victoria, in a funeral attended by 30,000 admirers from all over Europe.

3. Kaiser Wilhelm II (Holland)

After steering Germany into the disastrous First World War, the blustery Kaiser ended up on the wrong side of history with Germany’s defeat in 1918. Blamed by Western public opinion for starting the war and allowing German atrocities, Wilhelm abdicated and went into exile in neighboring Holland, where he was protected from prosecution for war crimes by his cousin, Queen Wilhelmina.

In 1919 he bought a small castle in the Dutch city of Doorn, where he spent his remaining years writing his memoirs and blaming the First World War on anyone except himself. With the rise of the Nazis, Wilhelm hoped he might be reinstated as Kaiser, but Adolf Hitler had no intention of sharing power with the stuffy old king, whom he dismissed as a relic of history. Wilhelm died in June 1941, just weeks before Germany’s ill-fated invasion of the Soviet Union, which was destined to bring Germany to ruin (again).

4. Idi Amin (Libya and Saudi Arabia)

One of your crazier dictators, Amin began his military career when Uganda was still a British colony. After toppling Milton Obote in 1971, he struck up warm relations with Libya’s Qaddafi, the Soviet Union, and East Germany -- a clue to his own governing style. In the mid-1970s his supporters began forcibly expropriating (a.k.a. stealing) businesses owned by Uganda’s South Asian minority, forcing tens of thousands of South Asians to flee the country.

But the refugees were the lucky ones: Amin also unleashed massacres against rival African ethnic groups, whom he accused of collaborating with Western imperialist spies, ultimately murdering about 300,000 people, or 1.7% of the country’s population. In 1975 Amin gave Palestinian terrorists safe harbor when they hijacked an Air France jet. (He was also accused of being a cannibal, although this was never proved.)

The end came when he invaded Tanzania in 1978, provoking a counter-invasion and popular uprising that forced him to flee by helicopter in 1979. Amin first headed to Libya, where Qaddafi welcomed him with open arms. In 1980 Amin settled in Saudi Arabia, where the Saudi royal family subsidized his luxurious exile in return for (mostly) staying out of trouble. He died of kidney failure and was buried in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in 2003.

5. Shah of Iran (Egypt, Morocco, The Bahamas, Mexico, The U.S., Panama, and Egypt again)

Over the course of his 26-year reign, Shah Pahlavi managed to systematically alienate almost all his subjects: wealthy landowners were angered by his land reforms, peasants resented compulsory military service, middle-class merchants suffered from his ham-fisted meddling in the economy, and the Shiite clergy were outraged by social reforms like women’s suffrage. All this generated huge resentment against the Shah and his American backers. Typically, when Washington finally changed its tune, it did so at the exact wrong moment: political reforms allowed Iranian dissidents to overthrow the government and erect a new regime -- led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini -- that was even worse.

The Shah fled Iran and spent the rest of his life in exile, but most countries were reluctant to play host, for fear of alienating the new Iranian regime. After several months in Egypt, the Shah moved to Morocco until King Hassan II made it clear he was too big a political liability. His first request for asylum in the U.S. was turned down out of concern for the safety of Americans still in Iran. So he moved on to the Bahamas until the U.K. got cold feet, forcing him to decamp again -- this time for Mexico, which brushed off threats from Iran’s new Islamist government.

Finally, in October 1979 he was allowed into the U.S., where he was treated (unsuccessfully) for advanced lymphatic cancer at Cornell Medical Hospital in New York City. His friendly reception in the U.S. sparked outrage in Iran, where radical students retaliated by taking over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and holding embassy workers hostage for 444 days. Hoping to take political pressure off the U.S., the dying ex-monarch next traveled to Panama, a U.S. ally with modern medical facilities. But the Panamanian government was ambivalent, and even considered extraditing the Shah to Iran to face charges of murder and torture during his reign. Hoping to avoid this final indignity, the Shah returned to Egypt, where he died in Cairo on July 28, 1980.

6. Ferdinand Marcos (Guam and Hawaii)

Another U.S. Cold War ally gone wrong, during his tenure as president and prime minister of the Philippines from 1965-1986, Ferdinand Marcos stole an estimated $5 billion-$10 billion from the country -- much of that in the form of foreign loans the people of the Philippines are still paying back.

Of course this is just the financial legacy of the Marcos regime: one historian’s tally of its human victims includes 3,257 murders, 35,000 torture victims, and 70,000 political prisoners. Still, Marcos was definitely “our S.O.B.” in Washington’s global chess game with the Kremlin, so he got a pass and easy access to loans. But Marcos overstepped his boundaries in 1983 with the assassination of Benigno Aquino Jr., an opposition leader trying to return from exile, as he stepped off his plane in Manila.

The U.S. withdrew its support and the national legislature began impeachment proceedings against Marcos, who fell back on the military as the last remaining pillar of his rule. In February 1986, as opposition coalesced around Aquino’s widow Corazon and Marcos fell ill with kidney disease, he and Imelda fled first to Guam and then Hawaii with the help of the U.S. military. The pair was supposedly carrying 24 suitcases full of gold bricks and a trove of diamond jewelry hidden in diaper bags. Back home, Filipino investigators came across evidence of extravagant corruption, including Imelda’s infamous footwear collection, numbering 2,700 pairs of shoes. [Image credit: The Honolulu Advertiser.]

The kleptocratic couple spent the next couple years in comfortable exile, with Ferdinand receiving medical care for multiple ailments. He died on September 28, 1989, at the age of 72. She eventually returned to the Philippines. In 2009 the government of the Philippines reported it had recovered about $2 billion looted by the Marcos.

7. Manuel Noriega (U.S. and France)

In the 1970s and early 1980s, Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega was an important U.S. ally, but in the late 1980s he ignored requests from President Reagan to step down and allowed cocaine smugglers -- most notably Pablo Escobar -- to use Panama as a transshipment point and also as a bank for their illicit billions. Noriega staved off two U.S.-backed coups and allowed Panamanian military personnel to harass and threaten U.S. troops guarding the Panama Canal, providing the final justification for U.S. military intervention on December 20, 1989.

After seeking political asylum with the Vatican consulate, Noriega surrendered to U.S. forces on January 3, 1990; he was extradited to the U.S., where he was eventually tried and convicted of racketeering, drug smuggling, and money laundering. Noriega was imprisoned for the better part of two decades at a Federal prison near Miami, during which time he suffered a stroke, developed prostate cancer, and said he became a born-again Christian. His original sentence was reduced from 30 years to 17 in recognition of his good behavior. Noriega completed his prison sentence in September 2007, but spent several more years in prison as international authorities tried to decide what to do with him.

In 2010, the U.S. government finally extradited him to France to stand trial for money laundering. The former strongman, now 77, was convicted and sentenced to seven years in French prison.

8. Mobutu Sese Seko (Togo and Morocco)

Ruling a vast tropical realm blessed with equally vast mineral riches, Mobutu is the archetypal commander-in-thief. After seizing power with the CIA’s help in 1965, Mobutu used a slapped-together anti-colonial ideology (called Mobutu-ism—what else?) as a fig leaf for his criminal regime, which made off with at least $5 billion while Zaire remained mired in poverty. Mobutu forced his subjects to wear “authentic” African clothing (which was actually just as foreign as Western dress) and adopt “authentic” African names, following his lead: born Joseph Desiree Mobutu, in 1972 he took a new name -- Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga -- which translates to “The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake.”

His megalomania was matched only by his corruption. He turned his hometown of Gbadolite into a palatial jungle retreat, complete with an airport with runways able to accommodate Concorde jets he chartered for shopping trips to Paris. Mobutu acquired luxurious homes all over Europe, huge ranches in South America, and too many yachts to count. He even used government jets to fly his prize cattle herd back and forth between Africa and South America.

All this was financed by under-the-table sales of gold, diamonds, cobalt, and copper, along with shady foreign loans, which helped support his personal retinue of 3,000 people, including wives, mistresses, children, friends, bodyguards, chefs, drivers, and so on. But U.S. support for Mobutu dwindled after the end of the Cold War, and his regime finally came crashing down in 1997, after native Tutsis rebelled in eastern Zaire (now Congo). Suffering from a kidney ailment, Mobutu first fled to Togo, where he received a rather cool reception, then moved on to Morocco, where he died on September 7, 2007, at the age of 66.

More from mental_floss...

April 22, 2011 - 8:01am
submit to reddit