Today’s post will deal with the lighter side of international relations. Here, I will explore a case study in individualist, independent thinking that makes America great. In honor of the 31st anniversary of the Conch Republic, I will briefly tell the story of the Florida Keys and their brief moment in the international community.
The scene is South Florida in the early 1980s, the age of Scarface and the end of the Cold War. For Floridians, this meant an influx of two potentially destabilizing forces: Cuban refugees and drug traffickers. As the territory closest to Cuba, the Florida Keys were of particular focus for the US Border Patrol, whose actions in 1982 set off what is perhaps the weirdest (and most fun!) independence movement ever. In an effort to limit the drug trade, the Border Patrol set up a roadblock on the only road connection between the Keys and the mainland.
Residents protested vociferously to the perceived business interruption and overreach of authority. In Key West, the city council expressed concern over the roadblock’s impact on the tourism industry, the economic lifeblood of the region. Ignored by the federal government, the city then appealed to courts for an injunction to stop the roadblock. Failing to adequately address the issue in the legal system, Key West decided to do something more dramatic.
On April 23, 1982, Key West Mayor Dennis Wardlow announced Key West’s secession from the United States to form the Conch Republic, declaring war on Washington by symbolically breaking stale Cuban bread over the head of a naval officer. After exactly one minute of independence, Wardlow surrendered to the officer and requested $1 billion in foreign aid. The dramatic ploy worked, as the roadblock was soon removed and tourism received an added boost due to the branding of Key West as the “Conch Republic.”
Conch identity was still recognized in Florida and the United States after 1982; in fact, representatives from the Conch Republic were invited to the Summit of the Americas in 1994 alongside other Western Hemisphere nations. Nor did “hostilities” cease after the “war of independence.” In 1995, US Army Reserves “invaded” Conch territory after an Army training exercise not pre-approved by the Key West City Council. Conch forces responded by shooting water cannons and throwing stale bread at their American foes. This led to an official apology from the army, which stated that “in no way meant to challenge or impugn the sovereignty of the Conch Republic.” Later that year, the Conch Republic responded to the government shutdown by “invading” Dry Tortugas National Park (a small island) in a futile attempt to keep it open. In 2006, the Conch decided to “annex” Seven Mile Bridge due to a disagreement with US authorities over whether it was technically US territory. The issue had significance due to the US government’s “wet feet, dry feet” policy determining the immigration status of Cuban refugees.
Sadly, the Conch Republic has also had political infighting in recent years. The central dispute is between Key West and Key Largo, the two hubs of the Florida Keys. In 2008, Key Largo seceded from the Conch Republic to create the Independent Northernmost Territories of the Conch Republic. The primary disagreement centers on the definition of “Conch Republic.”
And there you have it- the story of the Conch Republic. If you are interested in becoming a Conch yourself, you can apply for a passport here.