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    A lesson in peace and geography


    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 30, 2001

    MIAMI -- Peace has always been a word that sits well with laid-back Key Westers.

    But never have they witnessed the real making of peace firsthand.

    Starting Tuesday they will get that chance.

    Led by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, about 100 international negotiators are due to arrive at the Keys' historic Little White House for serious peace talks. But, as foreign observers and news media prepare to descend on the tiny island community, few people in Key West are quite sure what -- or where -- the talks are about.

    How many people not studying for a doctorate in international relations really have any idea what's going on in Nagorno-Karabakh?

    "In fact, I had to get my atlas out," admitted Monroe County historian Tom Hambright. "The geography of the world has changed so much. That used to be the Soviet Union, and those new names we aren't so familiar with."

    Well, Key Westers better get ready for a lesson in political geography. The talks are due to last all week.

    In the early 1990s the former Soviet republics of Azerbaijan and Armenia fought a three-year war over the breakaway mountainous region in the Caucasus. Internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh had petitioned in 1988 to become part of Armenia.

    Some 30,000 people were killed and a million were forced to flee their homes before a cease-fire was signed in 1994. But a final peace settlement has been elusive.

    U.S. officials say resolving the dispute is a priority, underscoring Washington's interest in Azerbaijan's vast oil wealth. The top-level talks will be mediated by expert negotiating teams from the United States, Russia and France.

    Ambassador Carey Cavanaugh, the U.S. special negotiator for Nagorno-Karabakh and a Florida native, said he chose Key West because "it provided a peaceful, tranquil setting that will be helpful for the negotiations."

    But some residents say the negotiators may be in for a nasty surprise. With spring break upon them, the island is no longer the quiet, out-of-the-way spot made famous by Ernest Hemingway and singer Jimmy Buffett.

    "It's a nice idea. It sounds really noble," said former Key West Mayor Sheila Mullins. "But I hope they realize they are being brought to a tourist attraction that doesn't have much in common with peaceful reflection anymore."

    Mullins said the 2-mile by 4-mile island daily hosts an average of 300 visitors per resident. Last week she complained that bad weather in Daytona Beach prompted hundreds of bikers to ride down to Key West, setting off car alarms all over the island. "I really hope they are going to insulate the delegations because nobody I know considers this place peaceful and tranquil anymore."

    Mullins, who is a Tibetan Buddhist and follower of the Dalai Lama, is a strong believer in the cause of world peace. "That's what I pray for on a daily basis," she said.

    Like most residents, Mullins is delighted that Key West was chosen for the peace talks. In fact, the key is ideally suited for such an event.

    The Little White House was once a winter retreat for President Harry Truman. From 1946 to 1952 he spent 11 working vacations at the 14-room colonial style home, which originally was the official residence of the commandant of the Key West Navy Base. The building is now the Truman Little White House Museum, and a popular tourist venue operated by Historic Tours of America.

    The peace talks will not be the first time the Little White House has been used for an important meeting. In 1948, Truman directed Gen. Dwight Eisenhower to hold a conference to reorganize the U.S. armed forces, creating the Department of Defense. The agreement was known as the"Key West Protocol."

    In 1961, President John F. Kennedy and British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan held a summit meeting there to discuss the situation in Southeast Asia. Last year, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Truman's role in creating the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff hosted a dinner for the top military brass of Britain, France and Germany.

    But it was Truman who really gave the Little White House its place in history.

    He fell in love with the house after escaping there one winter to shake off a bad cold. He enjoyed his visits so much he often stayed for as long as three weeks at a time.

    In March 1949 he wrote to his wife, Bess, "I've a notion to move the capital to Key West and just stay." Truman enjoyed the sea view from the porch.

    That's something the peacemakers won't be able to do, Mullins noted.

    "Now that's totally blocked by a three-story-tall condominium. It's such a shame. They are wrecking the place."

    Experts say hopes of a peace agreement in Key West are not good.

    If all else fails, the tour guides at the Little White House may have one or two suggestions of their own -- borrowed from Truman.

    When in residence, "Truman the Human," as he was called, liked to dress in Hawaiian-style shirts that became known as his "Key West Uniform." Tour guides also like to tell how he secretly enjoyed nightly poker games.

    He also had a very Key West notion of how to start the day. His breakfast consisted of a shot of bourbon with an orange juice chaser.

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