The death this month of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, a brutal dictator who had succeeded an even more brutish father, brought to mind an incident buried in history with which I was personally involved... when we came within a hairs breath of actually buying the country of Haiti! Baby Doc died October 4th in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, a city which I had frequented often in the mid-Fifties. The death by a heart attack of the 63-year old dynastic dictator was announced by the current President of Haiti, Michael Margelly, on his Twitter account. At the top of this article I have reproduced an article from the respected Christian Science Monitor of Boston, printed in 1957. The headline says: Bid Pushed to Buy Haiti, and it details how an American public relations guy (me) with a deep knowledge of the Caribbean country, had enlisted two well-known American millionaire businessmen to make an offer to the despotic ruling regime of the country of Haiti to abdicate (for a very respectable sum of money to be deposited into their Swiss bank account) in favor of a United Nations trusteeship.
Let me start at the beginning: For two years, from 1954 to 1956, Jay Weston Associates was hired by the democratic government of Haiti to publicize the country and the advantages of tourists going there. Haiti was primitive but very beautiful, and it offered untouched vacation possibilities all through the island. My fee of several thousand dollars a month was being paid by American hotelmen who owned several hostelries and gambling casinos on the island. The casinos were only open to tourists, and natives were not allowed to gamble there. The light-skinned elite controlled the country, and the economics were horrible. We were successful in this endeavor and tourism rose from 14,000 a year when we started to 72,000 when it ended. I had become friendly with President Paul Magoire, and he had encouraged our efforts in every way. I made frequent trips there, including a visit to the world-famous back country medical clinic run by a formerly-wealthy American doctor (of the Mellon family) who was treating the native population. Marlon Brando, who loved Haiti, had even tipped me off to a great restaurant high in the mountains above the capital city. I had come to love the gentle people, the stunning primitive art, the vibrant drumming music, the spicy delicious food, the beautiful women.
It all ended one day in late 1956 when President Magoire called me... from the New York borough of the Bronx, to announce that he had been deposed and exiled by "Papa Doc" Duvalier, a ruthless local politician. Paul was living with a Haitian family on the Grand Concourse and plotting his return. Of course my clients were no longer able to pay my fee... and anyway the country's tourism industry was shot for the time being. I made one more trip to Port-au-Prince, stayed at the venerable Hotel Oliffson, and quickly realized that this regime was going to be a disaster for the people and the country. Duvalier had organized a group of dangerous thugs, called the Tonton Macoutes, to police the country. It was horrible.
Upon my return, I went to visit several clients of mine in Beverly Hills. One was a wealthy theatre owner/vending machine operator named Sheldon Smerling of Beacon Enterprises, and the other was Armenian-born Ross Bagdasarian, the very successful innovative musical creator of Alvin and the Chipmunks. At dinner one night, I was expounding on the tragedy of Haiti, a country of enormous potential which had never been realized. I told about the bauxite deposits in the north, a mineral vital to the aluminum industry. I described the oil deposits thought to be off the coast of the 10,200 sq. mile nation, which had never been explored. Then I heard myself saying: "Hey, why don't we buy the country? Let the U.N. run it politically and we'll get a group of American businessmen to develop it economically. After all, the entire budget of the nation was $32 million and per capita income of its 4 million inhabitants was under $70 a year. A small investment in tourism and working capital for the mineral resources would pay off tenfold." My two friends then said: "Count us in."
A week later I had lunch with Barry Farrell, author of an article in LIFE magazine which described the bloody dictatorship of Duvalier. I tried out the idea on him, and he responded enthusiastically. Then he gave me the name of a 'contact' who was close to the president and a way to make an informal 'offer.' On Feb. 23 of that year, I made the offer in a letter to the contact. Within a week, I received a reply indicating some serious interest. However, a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor who was a friend of Barry's then broke the story seen above... and all hell broke loose. One call that I received was guarded but interesting... I later learned it was from a CIA individual... saying that if we were serious, we would be supported by 'U.S. Government interests.' And I received many calls from people in the Haitian community here, some of whom said: "Would you sell your family?" while others offered support. Then, a small war between the Dominican Republic and Haiti erupted.. and all of my contacts ended. The adventure was over.
As I read the obituaries in the papers last week, I gave much thought to what might have happened if this mad audacious project had worked... how it could have redounded to the benefit of the long-suffering Haitian people, especially after the earthquake in 2010 which killed as many as 250,00 people. Oh, well, know any other countries for sale?