Luckner Cambronne

'The Vampire of the Caribbean'


Luckner James Cambronne, politician: born Arcahaie, Haiti 1929; married Ina Gousse (two sons, six daughters); died Miami, Florida 24 September 2006.

Luckner Cambronne, a former leader of the dreaded Tonton Macoute militiamen, was the second most feared man in Haiti during the dictatorship of François "Papa Doc" Duvalier - who himself was by far the most feared - and became widely known in Haiti and abroad as "The Vampire of the Caribbean". He was also known as "The Shark", not so much for his extortion rackets as for his penchant for custom-made sharkskin suits.

The "Vampire" title was because of his lucrative export industry - selling the blood (in the years before Aids awareness) of Haitian donors to US and other foreign hospitals at a huge profit, as well as Haitian cadavers to American medical schools. Mostly, he bought the latter from the General Hospital in the capital, Port-au-Prince, for 15 gourdes ($3) a piece, but often mourners would arrive at funeral parlours to find their loved one's coffins mysteriously empty.

Indeed, in some cases, it was suspected the exported bodies had still been alive and well when he picked his victims out for their export value. Killing came easy to the Tontons Macoute (the "bogeymen"), who terrorised even the police and the ragged Haitian army in those days. In 1962, when it emerged that some Port-au-Prince hotels had been serving the flesh of humans among their fare, Cambronne was widely named as the likely supplier.

For 18 months after the death of Papa Doc in 1971, Cambronne was considered the most powerful man in the impoverished Caribbean nation, which shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic, serving as Minister for both Defence and the Interior (Home Office). He was said to have opposed Papa Doc's nomination of his gormless 19-year-old son Jean-Claude Duvalier to succeed him and later felt Jean-Claude should have named him Prime Minister.

After a contretemps between Cambronne and Jean-Claude's sister Marie-Denise and her husband, the young president, who inevitably picked up the tag "Baby Doc", managed to force his father's former right-hand-man into exile in Miami, where he remained until he died. Marie-Denise, said to have been a former lover of Cambronne, had been angered to learn that he was also once a secret lover of her and Jean-Claude's mother, Papa Doc's wife Simone Ovide Duvalier - known to French Creole-speaking Haitians as Manman ("Mama") Simone.

Cambronne was said to have made up to $10m during his role as Papa Doc's chief extortionist in the 1960s, when he was Minister of Public Works. After setting up the state-run Movement for National Reconstruction (known locally by its French initials MRN), he was supposed to raise funds for badly needed development and infrastructure projects. In fact, the money raised from the middle class and the wealthy, from businessmen and even from foreign diplomats under threat of violence, was a protection racket to bring money into Duvalier's, and his own, private coffers while the vast majority of Haitians continued to starve and live without houses, schools or roads.

Luckner James Cambronne was born the son of a Protestant preacher in Arcahaie, outside Port-au-Prince, in 1929. He was a bank teller when he met François Duvalier soon after the latter became President in 1957. Duvalier took him on, at first as little more than a bagman, but later as his right-hand man in extortion rackets and the killing of opponents as the shadowy head of the Tontons Macoute.

Cambronne got a quick feel for power and became one of the rare black faces among the whites and mulattoes in the flashy hotels, casinos and brothels of Pétionville, high above the filthy capital. Duvalier first appointed him Minister for Public Works, a recipe for disaster had it not been deliberately planned. After setting up the Movement for National Reconstruction, Cambronne extorted millions from anyone with money, though they were the minority in a land of slums and starvation. One scheme was to turn the poor hamlet of Cabaret into a modern city to be called Duvalierville, but the extorted funds never got beyond the dictator's or Cambronne's own bank accounts and the development never happened.

With the threat of sending in his feared Tonton Macoute gunmen, many of them illiterate, but terrifying in their uniform of straw hats, blue denim shirts, obligatory dark glasses and machetes, Cambronne even got away with taxing the country's widespread vodou (anglicised as voodoo) ceremonies despite the fact that vodou is a state-recognised religion in Haiti.

It was after Papa Doc Duvalier's death, when Cambronne was Minister of the Interior and of Defence, that his name, and that of his company Hemocaribien, became widely known in the United States and elsewhere as suppliers of blood to hospitals and laboratories, including some run by Dow Chemical, and of cadavers to universities and medical schools. In the era before Aids awareness, Haitian blood was highly coveted abroad. Because of the country's high rate of disease and high infant mortality rate, the blood of Haitians who made it to adulthood became extremely rich in antibodies.

Throughout his years in exile in Miami, Luckner Cambronne never denied that he remained a Duvalierist and hoped for the return of Baby Doc, in exile in France since he was overthrown in a popular uprising in 1986.

"A good Duvalierist is prepared to kill his children [for Duvalier] and expects his children to kill their parents for him," he once said.

Phil Davison

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