The Florida Keys War
By Chris Oakley
Adapted from material originally posted at Othertimelines.com
Summary: In the previous chapters of this series we explored the causes of the Florida Keys War; the course of the war itself; and the war’s impact on the subsequent course of human history. In this segment we’ll examine the final break in diplomatic ties between Cuba and Venezuela and analyze how the aftermath of the Iran War affected the 2004 US presidential elections.
Them’s Fightin’ Words: January-April 2004
Shock and outrage swept across Cuba like a brushfire when Chavez’s kangaroo court pronounced the three jailed diplomats guilty of all charges against them and ordered them expelled from Venezuela immediately. For the Montoya administration in Havana, angered by the Chavez regime’s behavior towards Cuba in the first place, the bogus espionage verdict was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Within minutes after the verdict was announced on TV, Montoya summoned the Venezuelan ambassador to Cuba into his office and coldly informed him that all formal diplomatic ties between Caracas and Havana would be severed immediately. All Venezuelan diplomatic personnel in Cuba were hereby declared to be persona non grata and ordered to leave the country within the next 72 hours.
It mattered little to Havana that Chavez had commuted the previously recommended sentence of death against the three incarcerated diplomats; in Montoya’s eyes, the Venezuelan ruler had committed an intolerable insult against his country by letting the trial go forward in the first place. And like most Cubans, President Montoya was not the type to suffer insults lightly; even as the three diplomats were on their way home from Venezuela, he was on the phone to his ambassador at the UN instructing him to submit a resolution to the UN General Assembly that imposed economic sanctions on the Chavez regime.
The ambassador found receptive ears when he put the resolution forward-- many of Chavez’s Latin American neighbors had vehement objections to his treatment not only of the three Cuban diplomats but of his critics in general. And the United States, which had just as much reason to dislike Chavez if not more, wanted to send a message to the Venezuelan ruler discouraging him from pulling a similar stunt with American diplomats in Caracas.
Chavez quickly retaliated the best way he knew how: with a unilateral cutoff of all exports of Venezuelan oil to the nations that had supported the UN sanctions. Venezuela, while not on a par with the petroleum-rich sheikdoms of the Middle East in terms of production or wealth, was a major player on the world oil market, so his export cutoff was not an idle gesture-- it put a sizable dent in the global economy. Nevertheless, the sanctions went forward and Venezuela’s transformation to an international pariah was complete.
Meanwhile, Howard Dean’s US presidential campaign, which had started amid great hope and fanfare, was imploding in the wake of a bizarre incident after the 2004 Iowa caucuses. Finishing third behind Masschusetts senator John Kerry and North Carolina lawyer John Edwards, Dean gave his Iowa supporters a speech meant to be a morale-booster but would instead turn out to act as the first nail in the coffin of his presidential ambitions: after asserting his belief that he and his supporters could overcome this setback to win the Democratic nomination and from there the White House, he closed his address with a loud yell of "YAAAAAAAAAAAAGGGH!".
That shout, meant to energize his backers, wound up being interpreted as a sign that the ex-Vermont governor was either too unstable or too hot-tempered. And it hadn’t helped matters much that, at a Q&A session a few days before the caucuses, Dean had told a retired farmer to "sit down and be quiet" when the man criticized a Dean comment to the effect that the chief executive was a dimbulb. His poll numbers, which had been steadily climbing on the strength of his pledge that he would focus on political and not military approaches to quelling postwar insurgencies in Iran, began to plummet like a barrel over Niagra Falls.
Attack ads by his opponents helped grease the skids for that plunge, repeatedly playing loops of the infamous scream in order to reinforce the image of Dean as loose cannon; President Bush’s re-election strategy team augmented the effectiveness of this tactic by highlighting Dean’s advocacy of civil unions for gays-- something many conservative voters were sharply opposed to. By the time the Super Tuesday primaries rolled around that March, Dean’s campaign was fading into oblivion and the fight for the Democratic nomination had more or less boiled down to a two-way contest between Kerry and Edwards.
Of all the would-be contenders for the Democratic nomination, only Ohio congressman Dennis Kucinich had suffered a quicker and more ignominious collapse. Kucinich, an ex-Cleveland mayor who’d espoused an unabashedly pacifist campaign platform when he began his run, had fallen out of contention early on and been forced to terminate his White House bid in early February of 2004 for lack of financial support; almost as crippling, particularly among conservative voters, was his insistence that the United States should get out of Iran immediately. "For him to suggest something like that," President Bush told campaign supporters during a visit to Dover, New Hampshire, "is like saying Washington should have gotten out of Valley Forge after bagging the Hessians."1 But that didn’t stop Kucinich from continuing to advocate an early pullout from Iran, and in his official statement announcing the end of his 2004 presidential run he told his supporters to push all the remaining candidates to take a vow to begin withdrawing US combat troops from Iraq during their first 100 days in office.
One candidate who clearly wouldn’t take that pledge was Jeb Bush-- if anything, his policy as commander-in-chief and his 2004 re-election campaign platform both called for the United States to stay in Iran for the long haul and encourage its allies to do likewise. On April 7th, 2004, the one-year anniversary of the start of the battle for Tehran at the end of the Iran War, Bush taped an interview for Nightline in which he stated point-blank that Washington should, if necessary, be willing to maintain a military presence on Iranian soil for the next 50 years. To his supporters, it served as a gratifying expression of his resolve in the war against terrorism; to his opponents it smacked of a recipe for getting the United States trapped in a never-ending quagmire reminiscent of Vietnam. But whichever side of the fence one stood on, it was clear that President Bush would not abandon his efforts to crush Iran’s postwar insurgencies by force.
With this in mind, MoveOn.org initiated a gigantic multimedia blitz aimed at driving Jeb Bush out of office; the leftist group produced no less than a dozen campaign spots decrying Bush as a dangerous warmonger who needed to be swept out of office in 2004, and their official website conducted an online petition drive calling for Congress to begin impeachment proceedings against the commander-in-chief.
But except for truly committed left-wingers, MoveOn’s anti-Bush screeds were having little effect on voter attitudes towards the incumbent-- in some cases, in fact, they were even encouraging undecided voters to cast their ballots in Bush’s favor. One ad that particularly irked conservative and moderate voters was a 30-second TV spot that essentially compared the president with Adolf Hitler. To Republicans in general and backers of US postwar policy on Iran in particular, the MoveOn ads were a vivid symbol of their opponents’ worst nature.
While the US presidential campaign was picking up steam in advance of the Republican and Democratic parties’ 2004 national conventions, the groundwork was being laid for an international tribunal to prosecute Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the other surviving top officials of Iran’s deposed Islamic fundamentalist regime. Preliminary indictments were still almost a year away, but Bush and his allies both at home and abroad deemed it a key priority to make sure that the appropriate legal framework for trying Ahmadinejad and his cronies was put in place as soon as possible. A UN legal team arrived in Baghdad in the second week of April to begin working out the details for the tribunal’s makeup.
Since much of Iran’s police apparatus had been effectively destroyed by the war with the US-sponsored coalition and much of the rest was suspected to be infiltrated by insurgent groups, trial security would be handled by coalition troops. A full battalion of MPs was deployed to Tehran in late April to handle the task of protecting the courtroom and all those involved with the trial; Defense Secretary Gates scheduled the transfer of additional MP units to the Iranian capital starting in mid-June. CIA deep cover personnel in Iran monitored communications traffic among insurgent groups for any sign that they might attempt to disrupt the trial; British and Saudi MPs assisted their American comrades on trial-related security details whenever feasible.
Average Iranians reacted with mixed emotions to the prospect of their former leader being put on trial for his actions while he was in office. Some regarded it as blatant imperialism by the world’s infidel powers; others grudgingly accepted it as a kind of necessary nuisance for putting the trauma of the war behind them and rejoining the company of civilized nations; still others welcomed it as putting the final nail in the casket of a despotic regime they had long hated. One young Tehran resident whose older brother had been jailed for writing letters critical of the late Islamic government and whose father had been killed in the Iran- Iraq War openly declared, "I hope they hang the bastard."2
Speaking Out: May-November 2004
By the beginning of May it was regarded as a given by most political experts that John Kerry would be the Democratic nominee for president when the party held its national convention in Boston that summer; nevertheless, John Edwards continued to press on with his bid to win the nomination. The Bush re-election team hedged its bets, simultaneously developing campaign strategies to fight both Kerry and Edwards in the general elections.
The 2004 Republican convention, which would take place in New York City about a month after the Democratic convention, was more or less a coronation ceremony; in contrast to the free-for-all which had constituted the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination, almost no one in the Republican Party had seriously challenged Jeb Bush’s efforts to gain a second term. The one man other than Bush to try for the GOP nomination, Arizona’s John McCain, had been obliged to drop his bid back in March after an underwhelming performance in the Super Tuesday primaries. New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, who many had expected to be a serious rival to both Bush and McCain in 2004, had opted instead to save himself for the 2008 presidential race; Jeb’s brother George W., also touted at one time as a potential 2004 White House contender, had decided that family loyalty took precedence over gaining the Oval Office and temporarily left politics to resume his former occupation as an executive with Harkin Energy.
Security was a huge concern at both national conventions. Those who opposed the Bush Administration’s policy on Iran had promised to hold massive protest rallies in Boston and New York; on top of that, Homeland Security was concerned that terrorist cells might target one or both of the conventions for a major attack.3 And of course there were the usual number of cranks, kooks, and fringe lunatics who national political events of any kind always seem to attract-- they had to be kept under control as much as possible to prevent them from raising a general ruckus on the streets. And last but not least, street crime in Boston was on the rise again after having been on the decline for at least ten years.
Kerry, however, might have preferred dealing with suicide bombers or anarchist window-smashers to confronting the group that would ultimately derail his presidential ambitions-- the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Comprised of officers and enlisted men who’d served with Kerry back in his Navy river patrol craft days, the SBVT was organized in late May of 2004 with the express goal of exposing what the group charged were falsehoods about Kerry’s naval service in Vietnam and subsequent antiwar activism. While not directly linked with President Bush or the Republicans, the group did enjoy sufficient moral and financial backing from conservative voters to prompt speculation that they might have been encouraged or even directed in their anti-Kerry activities by the White House. The SBVT’s leadership denied any ties to the Bush Administration but did acknowledge that they shared most of the incumbent president’s views on Iran-- indeed, one of their chief reasons for opposing Kerry’s drive for the Oval Office was that they feared his antiwar activist experiences in the early 1970s would influence his policy on Iran if he became commander- in-chief.
And in all fairness, it should mentioned that Kerry often proved to be his own worst enemy on that score. In his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, he made an awkward joke about how those who weren’t able to finish college "could be stuck in a foxhole" in Iran; although he insisted it was meant to highlight the importance of keeping open non-military options for disadvantaged young Americans wanting a better life, many voters, regardless of party affiliation, took it as an insulting swipe at the intellectual caliber of America’s armed services.4 He didn’t help himself much when, in response to a question by NBC’s Today Show about why he’d voted to authorize military action against Iran in 2003 when he claimed to oppose the US presence in that country in 2004, he simply said "I was for the war before I was against it"-- an unfortunately enigmatic comment at a time when candor was needed to dispel doubts conservative voters might have about the Democratic candidate’s credentials on national security matters.
Kerry’s gaffe did much to help Jeb Bush’s re-election chances; those prospects were further boosted in early September of 2004 when a US airstrike killed the #2 and #3 men in the hierarchy of Iran’s largest insurgent group. Their deaths dealt a serious blow to the insurgency and gave the commander-in-chief tangible proof he could point to that his administration’s postwar policy on Iran was bearing fruit-- in the wake of their demise, terrorist incidents in Iran fell to half the number that had been taking place before the airstrike.
On November 3rd, 2004 Bush got his second term, taking 31 of 50 states from Senator Kerry. In his victory speech on Election Night, the president said that "those who think they’re beyond the reach of international justice are in for a rude awakening"-- a message which did not bode well for Ahmadinejad, sitting in a US military prison cell awaiting trial; for Hugo Chavez, who saw in the newly re-elected chief executive a serious obstacle to his hopes of becoming Latin America’s dominant political leader; or for Syrian dictator Bashir Assad, who’d become America’s number one enemy in the Middle East after the Islamic fundamentalist regime in Iran collapsed...
To Be Continued
1"Bush Criticizes Kucinich Stance On Iran", Boston Globe, January 26th, 2004.
2Quoted from a BBC-TV news report dated April 30th, 2004.
3In fact, on the very day the 2004 Democratic Convention began Massachusetts state police arrested two men for illegal possession of explosives just a few blocks from the Fleet Center, the official convention site. Under questioning, the suspects were found to be members of an extremist left-wing group sympathetic to the Palestinian terrorist organization Hamas who had planned to bomb the convention in protest of US support for Israel.
4"Gallup Poll Says ‘Foxhole’ Crack May Come Back To Haunt Kerry In November", New York Daily News, August 2nd, 2004.