Sunken galleons haunt the voodoo general

Missing persons No.6 Raoul Cedras

In the small hours of 18 September last year, Haiti's milit- ary ruler, Lieutenant-General Raoul Cdras, warned the United States there would be "mass resistance" if it invaded. His wife,Yannick, told former president Jimmy Carter she and her three children had "agreed they would die before yielding to a foreign invasion". Mr Carter was impressed. He described Mrs Cdras as "one of the strongest and most powerful women I have ever met".

The news that the 82nd Airborne Division was on its way to invade, however, swiftly dampened the Cdras family's enthusiasm for martyrdom. By nightfall on 18 September, they, with the second and third in command, Brigadier- General Philippe Biamby and Lieutenant-Colonel Michel Franois, had agreed to step down and make way for the return of the Catholic priest they had deposed as president a year earlier, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Six months on, the only resistance General Cdras is putting up is to leaving his luxury flat in an apartment block, "El Emperador" (The Emperor), in a plush area of Panama City, where he spends his days and nights writing his memoirs. General Biamby lives conveniently next door.

Their flats are a stone's throw from the papal nunciature, where the Panamanian strongman, General Manuel Noriega, holed up after US forces invaded the country to remove him in 1989. General Noriega must be wondering why he ended up in a Florida jail while Haiti's military rulers, despite horrific acts listed by the Clinton administration, live on lobster and fine wines in luxurious exile.

As for Mrs Cdras and her two sons and one daughter, the only thing they would now die for, it is said, is in a place in a private Panamanian school. So far, other parents have blocked them. She is said to be regretting her decision to reject exile in Spain - "too cold" - where her husband studied at military academy and owns a house.

General Cdras, raised a Protestant but respectful of Haitian voodoo and a believer in reincarnation, is said to have taken to a laptop computer for his memoirs after failing to understand his own voice on taped memos. With a monotonous mumble and slight stammer, he was renowned as a nightmare for American television interviewers. "He talks like all his teeth are missing," noted one.

Some Panamanians and Haitians believe the US is funding General Cdras's expensive exile, possibly through a huge rumoured pay-off to the Panamanian government in return for accepting the Haitian coup leaders. With US paratroops on the way, the Haitian military chiefs did not have time to empty the treasury the way their former boss, the dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, did on his way to exile in February 1986.

General Cdras, however, once admitted to the Independent that he was a man with a dream. An experienced scuba diver, he had for years been looking for priceless treasure on board wrecked Spanish galleons off the Haitian coast. Did he ever find it? No one knows. He is a patient man, though. American troops who forced him out will be leaving this month, and the General never said anything about never going back.

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