Long History of Dumb Mercenaries in Haiti

By John Dorschner

Long before this month’s mercenary attack on Haiti, other dumb dreamers/soldier of fortunes have believed that the nation was easy pickings for a take-over. The latest mercenaries killed the president, but … what were they thinking about taking over a country? It looks like police have been rounding them fairly easily.

Back in 1976, I wrote about other attempts by Miami-based soldiers of fortune dreaming of conquering Haiti, trying to overthrow the evil Papa Doc Duvalier. The so-called Deputies Invasion, the CBS Invasion (also called the Bay of Piglets) and the Firebombing of the Presidential Palace were spectacular, sometimes comedic failures.

The first was in July 1958, when eight men — three former Haitian army officers, two Dade County sheriff’s deputies and three American “adventurers” — left Key West aboard a 55-foot boat. “According to a later investigation by the sheriff’s office in Miami,” I wrote in the Herald’s Tropic magazine, “several other deputies had participated in planning the invasion, on the idea that each would be paid $2,000. But before the boat took off, the men were having to put up their own money to get the ‘revolution’ underway.”

According to a detailed account in a book by Time Magazine’s Bernie Diederich and the Herald’s Al Burt, the boat landed in Haiti without problem, and the conspirators quickly captured an army barracks near the Presidential Palace. They were surprised to learn that Papa Doc Duvalier had removed most of the arms and ammunition. Even so, later wrote, Papa Doc thought the barracks had been taken by a large force and he prepared to flee the country.

That changed when an invader, a Haitian living in Miami, had a yearning for a local brand of cigarettes and send one of the captured soldiers to get a pack. The soldier told a Duvalier aide there were only eight rebels. Papa Doc persuaded his men to attack the barracks. All eight were killed.

The CBS Invasion happened in 1966. My reporting was based on news reports and two soldiers of fortune who participated — Marty Casey and Ralph Edens.

“The leaders were Rolando Masferrer, former commander of a private army in Cuba and a prominent anti-Castro conspirator, and Father Jean-Baptiste Georges, a onetime Haitian minister of education before turning against Duvalier. Their idea was to invade Haiti with Cuban, Haitian and American volunteers, then quickly launch an attack from there against Castro.”

The plotters rented a “safe house” in a white Miami neighborhood and put 30 black Haitians in it for training, along with some Cubans. Trucks brought in equipment. In the mornings, Cubans would put on their camouflage commando outfits and walk down to 8th Street for coffee. Neighbors became suspicious. They called police. The leaders wondered who had betrayed them, but still they went ahead with the plot.

In fact, there were all sorts of informants. U.S. Customs agents were keeping a watch on the house. A CBS cameraman was regularly chatting with the CIA. The cameraman was there because the “network had agreed to contribute money in return for exclusive coverage. Altogether, it is estimated that CBS put $170,000 into the campaign,” I wrote.

Eventually, about 100 men gathered at a house near Marathon, with 120,000 rounds of ammo, three tons of explosives, a bunch of machine guns and several boats — all paid for by CBS. Before they could take off, agents swept in. The problem was the agents weren’t expecting to arrest so many. In the confusion, some escaped, including a Cuban, Julio Anton Constanzo Palau.

“Later that morning, he called The Miami News, gave his real name, bragged that he had been part of the invasion plot and had not been captured,” I wrote. But one of his fellow conspirators, Marty Casey, told me that didn’t get him arrested. That came after Customs announced it didn’t have a place to store all the confiscated weapons and asked the conspirators to pick them up. Constanzo sent a buddy down to get his weapons. The buddy couldn’t tell which were Constanzo’s, so Constanzo himself went down to claim them — and only when he identified his weapons did agents arrest him.

Edens escaped from Marathon and was never arrested. Casey ended up serving nine months in federal prison.

After several other schemes failed, Edens and Casey got together with a pilot who had obtained an ancient Lockheed Constellation. It was in such poor condition that it aborted two take-offs at MIA because of hydraulic and engine systems before finally getting airborne.

At South Caicos, Casey and Edens “were waiting with weapons. But there was a problem. Confusion. Arguments. Casey and Edens had been expecting 50 or more Haitian exiles, who would launch the revolution while the Constellation dropped fire bombs. Instead, there were only the plane and 50 drums of gasoline with mini-marine flares strapped on the sides for detonation.”

Finally, they decided to go ahead — seven Americans, two Haitians and a Canadian. “At 10:30 am., June 4, 1969, the Constellation rounded a hilltop outside Port-au-Prince and swooped down on Papa Doc’s palace, dropping the fire bombs from a height of 300–400 feet.”

The pilot was supposed to tell the crew when they were over the target. But when he shouted “no, no, no,” the bombers thought he was yelling “go, go, go.”

I wrote: “Some of the bombs landed in the shacks clustered around the palace walls. Others hit the yards of the luxurious villas on the hillside.” They made a second run, then a third. On the third pass, soldiers shot at them with machine guns. The Constellation was hit several times but managed to get to a U.S. missile-tracking station on Grand Bahama Island. The technicians saw the bullet holes and called Bahamian police.

Papa Doc complained to the United States that the bombs had killed three, including a six-month old child. The palace suffered minimal damage. Papa Doc didn’t have a good reputation for truthfulness. Most of the crew spent less than three months in jail.

Why did they get involved? Edens had come to Miami because it “seemed like a pretty good place to get some excitement,” he told me.

Casey said that though most of their schemes held out the promise of money, they never saw much of it. Perhaps a few free meals or a place to stay were given for short periods, but that was all. “There were a lot of plans made, a lot of broken dreams,” says Casey. “But there was never any money.”

As I write this, investigators of this year’s assault are still trying to find out who financed the assassination of the Haiti president and what the plan was. Certainly the couple dozen conspirators found so far didn’t have a great strategy — either for escape or taking over the country. Maybe they got paid a lot of money. Maybe they, like Casey and Edens, had rushed ahead just on the promise of a big payday.

“It’s the mystique that attracts these people,” Edens told me decades ago. “If they knew the reality of this kind of life, they wouldn’t join. But when you try to tell them, they don’t believe you.”

My Tropic story on Miami’s soldiers of fortune is available through an educational website: http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/belligerence/casablanca.htm

It includes a sidebar on my interview with Miami’s most infamous soldier of fortune, Frank Sturgis, the Watergate burglar.

A Miami journalist for a half-century dedicated to peace, equality and environmental protection. Author of Verdict on Trial, available on Amazon.