- The Washington Times - Monday, April 2, 2001

KEY WEST, Fla. Secretary of State Colin Powell meets with the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan in this colorful subtropical community tomorrow for a summit that will take place just a whiff away from the Hog's Breath Saloon.
As host, Mr. Powell will spend a day with Presidents Robert Kocharian of Armenia and Gaidar Aliev of Azerbaijan in an effort to move toward resolution of a long-simmering dispute between the former Soviet republics.
They will be negotiating in an eccentric, sometimes seedy tourist rendezvous of T-shirt shops, drag queens and sunset worshippers as well as a colony of serious artists and writers that once included Tennessee Williams and Ernest Hemingway.
So far, Key West is largely unimpressed by this diplomatic honor.
Tony Tarracino, crusty local celebrity, former mayor and saloon owner, confirmed there definitely is no excitement about the summit. "People here don't care about all that [expletive]."
Mr. Tarracino, who no longer owns Capt. Tony's Saloon revered here as the town's oldest bar and a Hemingway haunt added, "People in Key West are more interested in all the chickens running loose. That's the big news. Chickens."
Nevertheless, Key West's Little White House is ready for the talks, which will take place in a former Navy quarters where former President Harry S. Truman vacationed with cronies, poker and a glass of old-fashioned entertainment.
The negotiators will find that a touch of Mr. Truman's preferred bourbon or other spirits is still held in high esteem in Key West, which shrugged its collective shoulders at the federal imposition of Prohibition and kept on drinking.
The Hog's Breath Saloon, just a stagger from the Truman retreat, is located in a booming bar-lined district that suggests this part of this raffish town at the tip of the Florida keys is not so much a lush tropical paradise but a tropical paradise for lushes.
Perhaps that's the point. In announcing the site for the talks sponsored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the State Department noted Key West's lack of involvement in the issue. The department appears to have it right.
Steve Hiatt, manager of the Meteor Smokehouse, vouched for the town's neutrality in the conflict over Nagarno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan borders, that has cost the lives of a reported 35,000 people.
"Nobody knows anything about this," he said. "It must be the State Department's best-kept secret. People here aren't against anybody. There's no politics here. In Key West we're as loose as a sea snake. Happy hour at the Green Parrot ends all discord."
The disputed area is a mountainous region now under the control of Armenian forces. Despite a 1994 truce between the two countries, there have been sporadic clashes, and Armenian separatists have driven Azerbaijanis from the district.
Negotiators may also find Key West's international status somewhat cloudy. When federal agents, seeking drugs and illegal aliens, set up roadblocks on the road to Miami in 1982, outraged islanders seceded to become the "Conch Republic," named for a sea snail that lives in these blue-green waters.
Creation of the Conch Republic fired the imagination of residents here, who regard themselves as the embodiment of independence. The idea became controversial, however, and the city commission voted to secede from the imaginary republic.
Still, an office across the street from the county courthouse three blocks from the entrance to the Little White House is issuing Conch Republic passports and the blue flag of the Conch Republic flies from one end of this island to another.
None of this will affect the goodwill with which an optimistic Key West will greet its guests.
Mayor Jimmy Weekley, who was recently made an honorary lesbian by a grateful women's group, says a friendly welcome is assured and holds out the possibility that the town's famous tolerance will contribute to a diplomatic solution.
Mr. Weekley, too, is an advocate of Happy Hour negotiation.
"Somebody said they should go to the Green Parrot. Let the presidents have a couple of beers," Mr. Weekley said last week. "Then the Key West Accords."
"Well, it's not Paris or Geneva," said Joe Bobeda Jr., proprietor of Cuban Joe's Cigar Shop, of talks that have already been held elsewhere 16 times. "But Key West is a good place to relax and get your thoughts together. If you are looking for peace, this is it."

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