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The Birth of the Conch Republic

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A photograph of a map of the Florida Keys and some Cuban bread.

From time to time governments impose unfair restriction on a portion of their citizens. This has often resulted in an attempted separation from the mother country:

Most of the events listed above resulted in a very bloody war, some of them with long-lasting effects. It is the last event we shall focus on here, the people in Key West do things... differently.

We Seceded Where Others Failed
– the motto of the Conch Republic.

What is a Conch?

The technical definition of a Conch1 is a family of edible shellfish. They are members of the mollusk2 family and have often been referred to as the 'snail of the sea'. Properly prepared conch meat has been considered a delicacy, like Escargot. However, when the proper procedures are not followed, the result is not unlike adding pencil erasers to your salad, in both flavour and texture.

Many of the Loyalists who fled the United States in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War relocated to the Bahama Islands and were called 'Conchs' as a derogatory name. It implied that they were eating cheap seafood, rather than having a proper English diet, in much the same way as the French were called 'Frogs'. When they, or their descendants, returned to the US the name followed them. In Key West it became a name of honour. Today native-born islanders refer to themselves as 'Salt Water Conchs' and allow those with at least seven years of residence to use the term 'Fresh Water Conch' for themselves.

The Oversea Highway

There is only one highway and just two bridges that connect the Florida Keys to the mainland. The northern causeway converges with US Highway 1 just south of Florida City in Dade County, about 35 miles (56km) south of the city of Miami. The distance from Florida City to Key West is 126 miles (203km), and should take about 2½ hours of driving time, under ideal conditions.

It might be worthwhile to point out that the highway starts at the south-eastern tip of the Florida Peninsula and runs to the south-west, Key West is located about 90 miles (145km) from the city of Havana, Cuba, and the nearby Port of Mariel3.

The Mariel Boat-Lift

The United States ordered an embargo on the country of Cuba on 7 February, 1962, when Fidel Castro openly declared his support for the Soviet Union. Many of the wealthy Cubans had fled to the US leaving some extended family and friends behind. With the embargo, Castro also prohibited Cubans from visiting the US, in effect using the Florida Straits as his own 'Berlin Wall'.

On 22 April, 1980, the Cuban Government opened the port of Mariel as an official place of embarkation for its citizens who wished to emigrate to the United States. In the following months utter chaos ensued when thousands of Cuban Americans offered huge rewards for the recovery of their loved ones, and boats of almost all sizes4 and description descended upon Mariel. When the official project ended in June (although smaller groups continued crossing until September) almost all of the relatives remained under Cuban control. Castro had released only the most undesirable (in his opinion) citizens, political dissenters and criminals. At least 124,000 immigrants arrived in the US and about 1,600 vessels had carried them.

Although it had been sanctioned by the Cuban government, in the United States the boat-lift still involved the breaking of several laws, including trading with Cuba and smuggling in undocumented aliens. Several boats were seized and many of the Cubans were incarcerated in immigration camps or prison. In the end the sheer number of people involved was too large to contain and almost all of the 'Marielitos' entered into Miami's Hispanic community.

Although very few, if any, of the designated people were included in the boat-lift, the Cuban-American leaders had found a group of people who would happily risk the trip across the Florida Straits if the money paid was high enough. When the boat-lift officially ended both governments maintained a close watch on the waters that separated them. In time the patrols were reduced and a new wave of Cuban immigration began. Many private boats would travel to an isolated Cuban beach, retrieve a group of selected Cuban refugees, and return to an isolated beach in the Keys to drop them off. The US Border Patrol found the challenge insurmountable.

The Border Crossing

There was an unnamed bureaucrat in the agency who came up with what he thought would be a brilliant solution. They set up a makeshift border crossing station just above the point where the two roads from the Keys merged, no one could enter or leave the Keys, at least by land, without passing their checkpoint. The site selected was in front of Skeeter Davis' Last Chance Saloon, a bar that was popular with many local motorcycle clubs. They had probably not studied the 'Commerce Clause' (Article 1, Section 85, clause 3) of the US Constitution that allows Congress to control interstate and foreign trade. The 4th Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures within the US – an inconvenient thing, that pesky piece of paper.

The disruption of the flow of traffic was almost instantaneous. People reported more than 17 miles (27km) of stop-and-go traffic before they reached the checkpoint. This was annoying. This was an insult! Most important of all, it was having a negative effect on the tourist trade! Something must be done!

Soon after Mayor Dennis Wardlow had received a telephone call from his friend Skeeter telling him about the checkpoint in front of his saloon, the Mayor assembled his staff. A small group flew to the Federal Courthouse in Miami to demand an injunction that would force the removal of Border Patrol's checkpoint. They were refused. As they flew back to Key West they discussed what alternatives were left. By the time they landed a plan had been made. They would have to act quickly, it was the evening of 22 April.

The Conch Republic

It was noon on 23 April, 1982, that the Mayor called a special press conference of the steps of the City Hall. As the senior Federal Official in the area he invited the Admiral of the local Navy base to attend6. The Mayor pulled a paper from his pocket and solemnly read the words of the proclamation for secession.

The Conchs were prepared! Many of them produced the weapons they had secretly smuggled into the square! They began attacking the enemy with stale Cuban bread7 – breaking the loaves over the 'enemy's' heads! After only a few minutes of combat the Mayor, who had proclaimed himself Prime Minister during the chaos, formally surrendered to the Admiral, and presented his list of demands for foreign aid and war reparations.

So began the Conch Republic.

There are some who place the territory of the Conch Republic solely in Key West; this is not, nor has it ever been, true. The original intent was to include all of Monroe County (the Florida County that comprises all of the Keys) and the small slice of Dade County south of Skeeter's Saloon – the entire area that was isolated by the border checkpoint. Properly, Key West is the Conch capital and the rest are collectively known as the 'Northern Territories'.

Wet-Foot, Dry-Foot

In 1995 the Federal Government amended its Cuban immigration policy with the Wet-Foot, Dry-Foot policy that would have made the entire Florida City Border Checkpoint irrelevant. Under this policy any Cubans who reach American soil are given amnesty, unless they have done some really bad things. Those who are captured at sea must be returned to Cuba, unless they can prove it would be especially dangerous for themselves. It was far too late to prevent the Conch Republic movement. As of this writing (March 2013), it is still the law of the land, as is the Cuban embargo. This policy includes only Cuban nationals; others, including Mexicans and Haitians, can be deported even after having lived in the US for many years. This has often been seen as unfair by the other groups.

So, You Want to be a Conch?

Just as the Conchs prefer a good party to a war, they are not averse to selling a bit of their heritage for a profit. You can purchase your very own Conch passport as a citizen or diplomat for a modest fee, or not so modest if you wish to be an Ambassador. Many have applied for the passports, including British comedian Paul Merton, who managed to obtain an 'Ambassador' credential while filming a special for television. Although they have absolutely no legal status, most of the surrounding countries will be glad to stamp them for you so they can share in the joke.

There is a story about an American who was captured by a group of freedom fighters in Guatemala, a Central American country. When he produced his Conch passport saying: 'Americano no! Soy8 Republica de Conch!', the story goes that they treated him as a fellow revolutionary. However the story was written by a Conch, so you should not place a wager on it being true.

It was not long after the news of the Conch Republic hit the national media that the border checkpoint was quietly dismantled. This should be counted as a Conch victory, if you are keeping score. The front wall of Key West airport still greets visitors with a mural declaring 'Welcome to the Conch Republic'. Many Conch key chains and fridge magnets are available in the shops. If there is anything a true Conch enjoys more than a party – and independence – it is the opportunity to relieve a tourist of all that bulky extra cash.

Conclusion

It should not be surprising that the foreign aid and war reparations were never paid. It is surprising that the proclamation of independence was never addressed by the Federal Government. That might just be a Florida thing as they never really addressed that thing with the Native Americans either.

When asked why the Keys had seceded, the most common answer is: 'When they set the border checkpoint above us we felt the United States had abandoned us, something had to fill the void'. The true measure of a Conch is not the island they live upon, but the content of the soul.

1The 'ch' is pronounced with the hard sound resembling a 'K'. We shall not add the myriad of accents that have been used for the other letters.2US spelling.3A large bay just west of Havana.4The Cuban Government had set a minimum length of 20ft (6m).5In the US military 'section 8' is the grounds for dismissal due to mental incompetence – this is probably only a coincidence.6There are seven distinct naval bases located in, or near the City of Key West.7Fresh Cuban bread is far too soft and flexible to use as a weapon, unless it has been pressed into a sandwich. Only a fool would use a good pressed Cuban for anything other than lunch.8Spanish for 'I am, or I belong to.'

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