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 final segment we’ll recall the verdicts in the Iranian war crimes trials; examine how the guerrilla campaign in postwar Iran affected the 2006 US Congressional elections; and get a look at life in modern-day Cuba nearly half a century after the first shots were fired in the Florida Keys War.
Out With The Old, In With The New: May-November 2006
"Guilty on all counts." Despite the overwhelming din permeating the courtroom, that stark pronouncement from the UN tribunal could be heard loud and clear. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the man most Westerners deemed responsible for the bloodiest conflict the world had known since the Manchurian War, had been convicted on every charge made against him. Now it was time to decide on a fitting sentence for the deposed Iranian tyrant. Many on the tribunal, the American members in particular, favored swift execution for Ahmadinejad, but others on the tribunal argued that this might have the effect of creating a martyr and galvanizing the insurgent forces in Iran; this group argued that Ahmadinejad should instead be sentenced to life imprisonment.
The senior Saudi representative on the tribunal sided with the Americans on this issue; he agreed with their view that the only fitting penalty for Ahmadinejad’s actions was death, and further argued keeping the ex-Iranian dictator alive in prison would give him a chance to incite the insurgent forces in Iran to perpetrate even greater atrocities than the ones they’d already committed. Since the Saudi jurist was one of the most respected legal minds in the Arab world, his words carried a fair amount of weight with other Arab members of the UN tribunal, and in the end Ahmadinejad was sentenced to death by hanging.
He would not be going to the gallows alone, however; the ex-Iranian dictator’s counterintelligence chief and the chief’s two most senior deputies were also sentenced to death for their roles in planning and orchestrating the 9/11 attacks. Numerous other military, political, and intelligence officials from the deposed Islamic regime would receive lengthy prison sentences, as would members of the secret police convicted of human rights violations during the years the fundamentalists had held power in Tehran.
Ahmadinejad was hanged on June 8th, 2006 inside Tehran’s main civilian prison; his last moments were captured by camera phone, and they would inspire a fresh bout of criticism of White House policy on Iran. In the video footage the hangmen could be heard taunting the ex-Iranian dictator as they led him up the steps to the gallows and spitting on his corpse after coalition medical officers confirmed Ahmadinejad’s death. It was later discovered that the two men who escorted the late Iranian president up the gallows steps were members of a religious sect which had opposed the fundamentalists’ rule; some suggested that allied occupation authorities had tried to intentionally humiliate Ahmadinejad, or least done an inadequate job of holding the guards to a proper standard of professional conduct.
Few people were quicker or more vocal with such criticisms than Nancy Pelosi, who in a Los Angeles Times interview the day after Ahmadinejad’s execution said that Bush was acting more in the spirit of vengeance than of justice when he called for the ex-Iranian president to be hanged. The President, naturally, disagreed with Pelosi on that score; in his first White House press conference after Ahmadinejad’s death, he said that the death penalty handed down by the UN war crimes tribunal had been fully justified not only by the late Iranian tyrant’s role in 9/11 but also by the countless human rights abuses Ahmadinejad had allowed, even encouraged, against his own people.
But Bush did concede that the guards’ behavior in the last moments before Ahmadinejad’s execution and the first moments after it had been somewhat questionable at best. On June 11th, 2006 he authorized the CIA and the Defense Department to begin a joint full-scale inquiry into the matter of the guards’ behavior at the hanging. The British counterintelligence service MI6 would also play a key role in the investigation.
The inquiry was barely two weeks old, however, when insurgent groups in Iran would unleash their most devastating attack yet on coalition occupation forces. On June 26th, 2006 a suicide truck bomber hit the coalition forces’ southwestern regional command HQ in Abadan, killing 210 and injuring another 130. The attack was made even more lethal by including chemical bombs on board the truck; these chemical bombs employed mustard gas like the kind used on the Western Front during World War I and more recently in the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.
Would-be successors to Jeb Bush at all points on the political spectrum were quick to seize on this attack as a defining issue for their White House campaigns. Those who supported Bush’s Iran policies, like John McCain and former Tennessee senator-turned-TV actor Fred Thompson, asserted that the Abadan bombing was proof the United States could not afford to give up its fight against the insurgents; those who opposed it, like Dennis Kucinich and Hillary Clinton, cited the attack as evidence that the time had come to begin bringing US troops home from Iran. Both sides spent lavishly on TV and Internet advertising in their efforts to make their case to American voters.
The suicide bombing at Abadan also had considerable impact on the 2006 midterm Congressional elections. The Democratic Party, seeing an opportunity to tip the scales in its favor in the House and the Senate, capitalized at every opportunity on liberal and moderate voters’ discontent with the mounting casualties in the fight against the guerrillas and the waste and corruption that had been brought to light by federal hearings into the handling of Washington’s reconstruction efforts in postwar Iran. Every effort was made by Democratic political strategists to link all Republican Congressional candidates with Bush, even if those candidates sharply disagreed with him on many issues; the GOP retaliated by releasing a barrage of attack ads that equated the mainstream Democratic position on Iran with former British prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s disastrous "appeasement" policies toward Nazi Germany in the late 1930s. From early July until late October, the battle for control of Capitol Hill would seesaw back and forth like a heavyweight boxing match.
The bout finally ended on November 7th, 2006, when Democratic Congressional victories in seven key states gave them control of the House and Senate for the first time in more than a decade. One of the first beneficiaries of this turnover was Nancy Pelosi, who became the first female Speaker of the House in American political history; in her victory speech Pelosi declared that she would use her newly-won position’s authority to lobby Bush to begin withdrawing American combat troops from Iran at the soonest possible date.
But even with a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress not everyone agreed with the new House Speaker’s agenda. Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, by then an independent and having narrowly won re-election to the Senate seat he’d previous held as a Democrat, was highly critical of Pelosi’s stance on Iran and warned that if US and allied forces pulled out of that country prematurely it would set off a bloodbath of horrific proportions as those who advocated a restoration of the old Islamic theocracy clashed with supporters of the "separation of church and state" principle to fill the void that would be created in the wake of such a pullout.
Not that Iran was the only concern of US Middle East policy experts; they were also keeping a wary eye on Syria, which was suspected not only of supporting the guerrillas in Iran and interfering with Lebanon’s internal affairs but also of trying to develop its own nuclear weapons capability with secret aid from North Korea. With Saddam Hussein’s Baathist tyranny in Iraq and the fundamentalist Islamic theocracy in Iran having collapsed within just over a decade of one another, Damascus had waited for the chance to expand its power and influence in the Middle East. And when that chance came, Syrian ruler Bashir Assad had wasted little time exploiting it.
Around the same time as the Abadan suicide bombing, Syrian jets began conducting covert air strikes on targets in southern Lebanon in support of Hezbollah militia fighters who were waging a vicious undeclared war against the Israeli army; Israel, tired of constant rocket attacks by Hezbollah and Hamas on its towns along the Israel-Lebanon border and the inability of the Lebanese government to stop such attacks, had taken matters into its own hands and sent troops into the regions where the rocket launch sites were suspected to be located. Assad did everything he could to sway public opinion in the Middle East in Hezbollah’s favor and supply Hezbollah and Hamas with whatever they needed to halt the Israeli campaign.
Nor did he stop at merely backing them with propaganda and arms shipments; a Syrian commando unit was covertly inserted into the battle zone to provide extra firepower on the ground for the Hezbollah and Hamas forces, while the director of Syria’s main counterintelligence bureau gave the terrorists financial aid by means of a slush fund laundered through Swiss banks. What the IDF had expected to be a decisive thrashing of their old enemies was instead turning into a grim and costly fiasco for the Israeli army. Had the UN not intervened to arrange a cease-fire between the combatants in early August of 2006, many military experts suspect the Lebanon campaign would have ended in total disaster for the Israelis.
As it was, the IDF lost over 15 percent of its original expeditionary ground force and Hezbollah and Hamas claimed a decisive military and propaganda victory for themselves. When confronted with suspicions that his country had aided the Hamas and Hezbollah forces in their assaults on Israel as well as their creation of a separate terrorist fiefdom within southern Lebanon, Assad denied playing any role in the conflict other than offering moral support to his fellow Arabs; however, he could not resist gloating over the fact that the Israelis had been forced to withdraw from Lebanese soil after sustaining what could at the very least be described as a bloody nose.
He wasn’t gloating quite so much in March of 2007 when Israeli fighter jets bombed Syria’s main nuclear research facility in the Jabal ar Ruwaq mountains. The destruction of the Jabal research complex, which had cost millions of dollars to build and which Assad had taken great pains to hide from the rest of the world, was a major setback for Syrian ambitions to dominate the Middle East. And there would be further setbacks to come: just a few weeks after the Jabal ar Ruwaq raid, the UN approved a resolution imposing sanctions on Damascus for its intrusions into Lebanon’s domestic affairs and its suspected backing of the insurgents in postwar Iran. The same day that the resolution was passed, the White House announced that General David Petraeus, now overall commander-in-chief for coalition occupation forces in Iran, was meeting with senior Iraqi and Jordanian defense officials at the end of the month to craft a joint strategy for deterring Syrian attacks on Iraq or Jordan.
As you read this, more than four and a half decades have passed since the first shots were fired in the Florida Keys War. In those decades, Fidel Castro has gone from all-powerful ruler of a Marxist state to prisoner of war to outlaw icon of the anti-American left to near-forgotten relic of an era-- and an ideology --long dead. Living in one of Havana’s poorer districts today, the once-robust Castro is in declining health and may not be around to see the Florida Keys War’s half-century anniversary in 2011.
When Al Gore made the controversial decision to commute Castro’s life sentence in 1997 and release him from US military custody, the ex-Cuban ruler had expected to receive a hero’s welcome upon returning to his homeland, but unfortunately for Castro that turned out not to be the case. Post-Cold War Cuba is a resolutely capitalist nation, with little interest in or tolerance for the Leninist beliefs Fidel and his brother Raul continue to espouse; though many of the victims of the Castro regime’s abuses are long since dead, enough evidence of those abuses still exists to squash the vaguest inclination on the part of the Cuban people to re-adopt a socialist form of government. La Cabana, where Che Guevara once shot political prisoners in the back of the head, has been converted to a museum memorializing the victims of Fidel Castro’s brief but frightful reign. All that remains of the old Cuban Communist Party is a token far-left Marxist group whose political strength is, to put it kindly, minimal.
While it has not fully regained the influence and wealth it enjoyed during the Batista years, organized crime has enjoyed something of a resurgence in Cuba in the past fifteen-odd years; drug smuggling is a major problem for the Havana government, and a lucrative illegal business in contract killings flourishes in some of Cuba’s major cities as rival gangs fight each other and the police for control of the streets of those cities.1 On the positive side, however, religious and political freedom in Cuba are also flourishing in ways few would have dared hope for back in the Fidel era. No one fears being arrested for criticizing the government or expressing their spiritual beliefs-- indeed, when visiting Cuba in 2003 Pope John Paul II enthusiastically praised the Cuban government for its commitment to promoting religious tolerance and political liberty.
In sports, Cuba has established itself as a major force in baseball, soccer, and boxing. Two-time Olympic heavyweight gold medalist Teofilo Stevenson, to cite just one example, was one of the most dominant fighters on the pro circuit for over twenty years, holding two WBC world championships and three IBF titles before he retired in 2002 to take up the post of chairman for the Cuban national Olympic committee. Cuban amateur baseball teams regularly triumph in international competition, and the country’s professional leagues have become a rich source of talent for major league clubs in North America and Japan; there’s even talk that MLB may be interested in establishing an expansion franchise in Cuba by 2016. Cuba’s national men’s and women’s soccer teams are perennial contenders for the World Cup, and in the latest CONCACAF Gold Cup tournament the men’s team in particular just missed pulling off an upset victory against Mexico in the semi- finals.
Cuba’s arts scene has also flourished since the Marxist regime was toppled in the Florida Keys War; freedom of expression in the arts, which many feared would become as extinct as the dinosaurs under Castro’s rule, has revived with a vengeance, and Cuban literature and books often touch on controversial themes with a frankness not often found elsewhere in Latin America. The country also boasts one of the Western Hemisphere’s liveliest musical cultures; traditional and modern styles of music share a highly crowded stage, and in a unique cross-pollination of genres American hip-hop is starting to influence Cuban samba (and vice versa).
Economically Cuba is, as one prominent Havana CEO likes to boast, "El Gran Tigre del Caribe"-- "the great tiger of the Caribbean". A regional trade superpower, Cuba today enjoys a gross national product exceeded only by those of the United States and Canada, and even Canadian companies find it tough to match the drive of Cuban businesses to get their products out on the global market.
Cuba once again finds itself in the throes of an invasion, but this time it’s an invasion of tourists wanting to explore the battlefields where the Florida Keys War was fought. In order to preserve these sites, influential people in both Cuba and the US have banded together to form an organization known as the Keys War Monuments and Historical Archive Trust; this non-profit group devotes most of its time and resources to maintaining not only the land where the war’s battles were waged but also historical records pertaining to that war. They are assisted in this job by sister organizations in Great Britain, Mexico, Jamaica, and the Russian Federation.2
One of this group’s most crucial tasks is obtaining and safeguarding oral histories from surviving veterans of the Keys War. As time passes, these people are dying, making it harder and harder to get a fully rounded picture of the events of those harrowing days; naturally the Trust goes to great lengths to be sure their stories are recorded for posterity...and there are to be sure a great many such stories to record. With Washington and Damascus continuing to be at odds over Syria’s nuclear ambitions, one can’t help but wonder if in 30 years’ time the grandchildren of those who fought in the jungles of Cuba might have similar stories to tell about fighting in the Bekaa Valley or the Syrian desert.
This series is dedicated to the real Roger H.C. Donlon, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism in Vietnam, and to Navy SEAL Lt. Michael Patrick Murphy, who as the final draft of Part 19 was being typed posthumously became the first American serviceman to receive the Medal of Honor for service in Afghanistan. (Lt. Murphy was killed in action in June of 2005.)
1In Cienfuegos alone, to cite a Cuban justice ministry report issued in 2005, there were nearly 200 contract murders between 1993 and 2001.
2The British organization in particular, known as the Caribbean Territorial Defense Campaign Veterans’ Fund, has been an invaluable source of financial support.