From palace to prison

It’s fun to be a British royal in Cuba.

Vanity Fair apparently found the whole thing delightful: “With make-your-own mojitos and stylish sunglasses, the future King of England proved that diplomacy can be fun.” The occasion in question was a four-day Cuba trip in late March by Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. As VF put it, they “decided to mix work and play,” seeing the island’s “nicest sites and activities” (translation: their hosts took them on what used to be called a “Potemkin tour”), “embrac[ing] Cuba’s love for vintage cars” (as if the superfluity of junky 1950 vehicles were a product of taste and not of necessity), “spoke to artists about their response to a tornado that hit Havana in January” (these were, of course, government-approved artists, not dissident ones who are languishing in jails as political prisoners), and “met with activists who work on issues connected to domestic violence” (again, they certainly didn’t meet with pro-democracy activists).

Charles, meet Che.

Town and Country was so excited by the royal drop-in that it ran a glossy spread featuring “the best photos” of it – for example, an image of the heir to the British throne posing in front of that famous mural of Che Guevara in Havana. Interesting, isn’t it, how these high-class magazines devoted to capitalist comfort are so charmed by one of the world’s few remaining Communist dictatorships? Town and Country, by the way, was one of several publications that included a photo of a bench with a statue of John Lennon seated on it. Nobody bothered to comment, however, on the appropriateness of the Lennon figure: for the fact is that the end result of the political views articulated in Lennon’s anthem “Imagine” is always a terror state like the Castro’s.

Imagine there’s no Windsors.

Then there were the British newspapers. The Express focused on a supposedly whimsical part of the tour, when Charles and Camilla were shown how to use a large press to crush sugar cane to make mojitos. In a classic photo op, the Prince of Wales tried his hand at the press, quipping, apparently to the delight of the press contingent on hand, that he was certainly “cheap labour” – riotous humor for somebody visiting a country that is, in essence, an island prison. The august Times was presumably amused too, running a headline about the wonderful success that had been achieved by the royals’ “mojito diplomacy.”

Making mojitos.

Recall that when Donald and Melania Trump visited Britain last summer, Prince Charles and his older son, Prince William, both refused to meet him, obliging the Queen to greet the President and First Lady alone. When Charles referred to the Holocaust in a speech and lamented the fact that hatreds of the kind that motivated the Nazis are still alive and well, many observers got the distinct impression that he was alluding to Trump’s so-called “Muslim ban.” Prince Harry, Charles’s second son, has also publicly badmouthed the American President. Curious how key members of the House of Windsor are so eager to be on jolly good terms with Caribbean tyrants but don’t mind insulting the elected leader of their country’s strongest ally and protector.

In Gabon, Bongos play you

Ali Bongo Ondimba

In April, an article in Britain’s Daily Mail drew attention to a head of state who’s virtually unknown in the Western world: Ali Bongo Ondimba, President-for-Life of the small West African nation of Gabon. Bongo, wrote reporter Sebastian Shakespeare, “is Prince William’s closest ally in the fight against ivory poaching in Africa.” But now, it appeared, he could turn out to be “a source of acute embarrassment” to the prince.

Why? Because Gabonese oil minister Etienne Dieudonne was “considering levying tens of millions of dollars in tax penalties against the energy giant Shell, which has operated in the West African country since 1960.” If this taxation plan were put into effect, explained Shakespeare, it would “plunge relations with Gabon into the deep freeze” and make it “very tricky for William to continue his relationship with Bongo,” who’d previously been viewed by British diplomats “as a devoted Anglophile who was expected to seek Commonwealth membership for the former French colony.”

There was something very curious about Shakespeare’s article, and it was this: his clear implication that Bongo wasn’t already “a source of acute embarrassment” to the British prince. After all – as Shakespeare himself noted – Bongo, whose father ruled the country before him for 41 years, has “long been dogged by accusations of nepotism and money laundering.”

Bongo and family members at one of their French homes

And that’s putting it mildly. Every year, the Bongo family – which has been described as carrying out “institutionalized pillaging of public resources” and as treating “the national treasury like its own private bank account” – skims about 25% off the top of Gabon’s massive oil revenues. The family owns 39 luxury houses and apartments in France, including a 14-bedroom, 48,ooo-square-foot, $130 million mansion on Paris’s upscale rue de l’Université that’s the most expensive residence in France.

Bongo’s French real estate, moreover, is only a small fraction of his empire. He also has a £50 million house in Mayfair, and until recently owned a Boeing 777 jet, which Paris police seized in connection with a lawsuit. This wasn’t Bongo’s first unpleasant brush with Gallic cops: in February 2013, the gendarmes raided a Bongo-owned villa in Nice in connection with a graft investigation. 

“The most expensive residence in France”

There’s even more. In February 2014, the Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. Justice and Homeland Security departments were looking into American properties linked to the Bongo family in an effort “to determine whether any assets are traceable to public corruption” in Gabon. And this spring, it emerged that Bongo and his 50-odd siblings were warring in French courts over the family fortune, and that the struggle was bringing to light new information about their wealth – and the elaborate system of institutionalized corruption that made it possible. Among the contested family assets, it turns out, are clandestine bank accounts in Monaco containing at least hundreds of millions of dollars, plus “scores of luxury villas…around the world,” not to mention “planes, boats, art and huge stakes in Gabon’s key industries.” Oh, and let’s not forget Bongo’s “vast fleet of hundreds of luxury cars including Mercedes, Maybachs and Rolls Royces.”

Bongo with U.S. President Barack Obama
Bongo with U.S. President Barack Obama

Meanwhile, nearly a third of Gabon’s citizens live in poverty; the average Gabonese makes $12 a day.

All this being the case (and having been widely known to be the case for several years now), it was bemusing, at first glance, to see Sebastian Shakespeare suggesting in April that Ali Bongo had now, suddenly, because of a possible plan to levy a tax, emerged as a potential embarrassment to Prince William – as if Bongo’s years of shameless, limitless rapacity weren’t already more than enough of an embarrassment.

M. le Président and Mme. Bongo, Prince Harry

On second thought, however, we realized that there wasn’t really anything bemusing about Shakespeare’s article. On the contrary, it reflected a way of thinking that’s very familiar in the Western world today – a way of thinking that not only takes for granted the prodigious scale of corruption by African heads of state but accepts it, with a complacent shrug, as an endemic and intractable element of life on that continent. Most of Prince William’s countrymen, we reflected, would probably react with indifference to the news that he’d teamed up with the likes of Bongo to fight ivory poaching. After all, it’s a worthy cause, isn’t it? The House of Windsor can’t change the world, can it? 

Prince William

No, it can’t. But what it can do, and does routinely, is to take actions that send a message. And the message that Wills is sending by working with Bongo is not a welcome one. Intentionally or not, he’s doing the tyrant a massive favor – whitewashing his crimes, lending him legitimacy, providing him with an image reboot of a sort that the world’s best PR people could only dream of. The prince should understand this, and respond by acting responsibly. And he should understanding something else, too: that Bongo’s involvement in this partnership with him is almost certainly motivated by nothing more or less than a cynical desire to get precisely such a publicity boost.

Let’s face it: could a dictator who’s plundered so wantonly from his own people, accumulating palaces while his people try to scrape by on $12 a day, truly care all that much about the fate of elephants?