PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI, OCT. 13 -- The United States has agreed to release the frozen assets of Haitian military leaders and rent three properties belonging to former military commander Raoul Cedras, who left Haiti for exile in Panama early today.
The actions would allow Cedras to collect millions of dollars that he reportedly amassed during his brutal three years in power as well as thousands of dollars in rental income that will further cushion his exile, U.S. officials said today.
Cedras, his former chief of staff, Philippe Biamby, and Cedras's family left Haiti at 3 a.m. today, flying to Panama in a U.S.-provided airliner. Friends said Cedras and his family will probably end up at some future date in Spain, where they own other properties.
U.S. soldiers loaded massive amounts of luggage onto the aircraft, while the two generals and their entourage headed straight up the stairs of the waiting plane, never pausing to look back.
A separate U.S.-provided jet flew 23 "relatives and associates of Cedras and Biamby" to Miami, said U.S. Embassy spokesman Stan Schrager. "After a review by the departments of State and Justice, they were paroled into the United States by the attorney general."
Schrager said the departure of Cedras and Biamby "clears the way for the return ... of elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, for the full restoration of democracy and for a bright new future for the Haitian people." Aristide is to return Saturday.
But the future, at least financially, also looks bright for the fleeing military officers. While Cedras is renting his properties to the United States, former Port-au-Prince police chief Michel Francois, the third of the troika of military leaders who fled to exile, has rented out his opulent home to the Dominican Republic for use as an official residence, diplomatic sources said. Francois last week went to the Dominican Republic, where he has extensive business holdings.
Biamby, who led a much more austere lifestyle than his two colleagues, does not own a home. He lived in a room of his mother's house, where he grew up.
Washington is now facilitating the dictators' exile a month after President Clinton, in a dramatic address, called for their ouster, saying: "Cedras and his armed thugs have conducted a reign of terror, executing children, raping women, killing priests. As the dictators have grown more desperate, the atrocities have grown ever more brutal."
Further guaranteeing that the three will not suffer in exile, White House spokeswoman Dee Dee Myers today announced the assets of the military leaders, frozen in most countries for the past year, would be released.
"We've always envisioned that when Aristide returns all the sanctions, including the sanctions on assets, would be lifted," Myers told reporters.
A Treasury Department spokesman said that there was $79 million in individual Haitian accounts as of Sept. 15 but added that the amount was certainly larger than that because the Treasury figure came from voluntary bank declarations.
Schrager said the United States had, in an effort to get the former generals out of the country before Aristide returns, agreed to rent the three Cedras properties. The United States had pressed Cedras and Biamby to leave the country after they resigned Monday.
One home is a luxurious house in the affluent suburb of Pegguyville, surrounded by a stone wall, a manicured lawn and lots of trees. The second is his recently built stone beachfront resort house just off the main road, 30 miles north of the capital. The third is his mother-in-law's house close to the center of the capital.
The properties, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, were acquired although officially Cedras was earning a salary of about $900 a month. Francois was able to build homes and businesses on an official salary that never exceeded $500 a month.
Diplomats close to the negotiations said the rental deal was a last-minute demand, and the haggling over the details delayed the departure of the former generals by several hours.
"The rental will be determined at fair market value, and the property will be used by U.S. personnel in Haiti or sublet to other tenants," Schrager said. The main home, at market value, would go for about $5,000 a month, as would the beach-front home. The third house would normally rent for about $2,000.
Schrager said the rent would be "paid in advance" for either six months or a year, depending on the home. The agreement eased the Cedrases' immediate cash-flow problem on arrival in Panama.
All three buildings are now guarded by U.S. troops, dressed in full combat gear, the entrances blocked by U.S. Army humvees and trucks.
Diplomatic sources familiar with the deal said Cedras's wife, Yannick, led the haggling and set the terms, concerned not only about the price of the rentals but demanding that the homes be protected against destruction by angry crowds.
The sources said Yannick Cedras had first asked the United Nations to rent the properties, but the request was rebuffed. While the U.S. jet sat on the runway, the terms of each contract were painstakingly negotiated. U.S. Ambassador William Swing visited the Cedras residence several times Tuesday and sent a team of advisers over to assess the house.
"In the end, it was a matter of money," said one diplomat. "Yannick had to handle everything, make all the decisions, because the men were unable to make any decisions. They were completely listless."
All three men amassed their fortunes during their time in power by controlling basic products whose value skyrocketed because of international embargoes placed on the nation. Cedras, as commander-in-chief of the army, was cut in on almost all deals and lived by far the most ostentatious lifestyle. Two associates who did business with him estimated he saved about $100 million.
Francois was able to profit immensely by monopolizing the cement market, along with rice imports and other valuable commodities and reportedly also saved millions.
All three made millions of dollars by breaking the petroleum embargo on the nation, creating a cartel in conjunction with military officers in the Dominican Republic. Gasoline that sold in the Dominican Republic for about $1.50 a gallon retailed here for 5 to 10 times that and more. At its peak, international monitors estimated that Haiti was importing 2 million gallons a month.
Biamby, while leading a more austere life and passing much of the money he made on to soldiers loyal to him, saved several million dollars, according to business associates.
"He saved his money, he did not spend it," said one business acquaintance. "He went into exile once in 1989 after a failed coup, and he was penniless. When he came back, he vowed that would never happen again, and so he made sure he had something to fall back on."
The news of the rentals and the flight to exile infuriated many of those who supported the coup but were left behind. Many now face the abrupt loss of income that came from their dealings with the military and the possibility of losing their properties in attacks by angry crowds or through legal action.
Cedras, Biamby and Francois had all publicly vowed to stay in Haiti and lead armed resistance against the U.S. occupation that began Sept. 19. They had also promised not to cut a deal that left their followers unprotected.
"They were scum," said one man who participated in the coup. "They are cowards, just like all the rest."