International News in 2000


Issue: "Year in Review 2000," Dec. 30, 2000

Elián: Candle in the wind
Florida became a testing ground for states' rights long before Election Day. The saga of Elián Gonzalez gave residents a prequel to the circus atmosphere surrounding Clinton-era legal arm-twisting. By the first week of January the state found itself in a fray with federal immigration officials and Attorney General Janet Reno. On Jan. 5 the Immigration and Naturalization Service rejected lawfully filed petitions of asylum on behalf of the 6-year-old boy who washed ashore north of Miami without his mother, who drowned while crossing from Cuba. State courts and members of Congress moved quickly to file protective orders that would allow the boy to remain in the United States in accordance with his mother's wishes. Ms. Reno, short-circuiting the state's prerogative on custody, issued an order Jan. 12 denying jurisdiction to Florida courts. That set up a legal battle between Elián's stateside relatives and Washington that would for three months bounce, postelection-like, between federal and state courts. With the case pending an appeals court hearing, U.S. agents seized Elián at gunpoint from the home of his great-uncle Lazaro Gonzalez just prior to dawn on the Saturday of Easter weekend. A U.S. appeals court had agreed just days before to hear Mr. Gonzalez's case and had ordered that the boy not be taken from the United States. With Elián in the hands of federal agents, however, his father finally traveled to the United States-four months after the U.S. government issued travel documents for him and nearly six months after Elián's unlikely rescue at sea. The outstanding court case wheezed to a finish. His custody transfer resolved by force, Elián returned to his hometown of Cardenas in late June. He received a hero's welcome and did not soon fade into the humble Cuban boyhood he once knew. When Elián turned 7 on Dec. 6, Fidel Castro was there to cut the cake. Before cameras, classmates, and relatives, he hailed the returned refugee as "our little friend." Now a poster child for the aging dictator's clamp on emigration, Elián blew out the candles. Change of address:

  • Vincente Fox took office as president of Mexico on Dec. 1 in Mexico's first transfer of government between two parties. Mr. Fox, whose platform included a pro-life plank, ousted Mexico's PRI party, which had controlled the government for over 70 years.
  • Alberto Fujimori on Nov. 20 resigned as president of Peru by faxing a letter from a hotel in Tokyo. Credited with reforming Peru's economy and bringing terrorists to heel, Mr. Fujimori fled to Japan and ended 10 years in office after he was caught in a bribery scandal. The son of Japanese immigrants, the Peruvian-born head of state was granted citizenship in Japan that will bar his extradition and prosecution.
  • Slobodan Milosevic stepped down as president of Yugoslavia, the federation of Serbia and Montenegro, after mass demonstrations and nationwide strikes in October demanded his ouster. The protests were triggered by his attempt to annul the election victory of his pro-democracy rival, now President Vojislav Kostunica. The defeat ended 11 years of the Milosevic dictatorship, most of it spent at war with the breakaway republics of the former Yugoslavia (in order, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo), the only wars in Europe since World War II.

Putin: Burning ballots and pardoning Pope
The resignation of Russian President Boris Yeltsin elevated Vladimir Putin to top office in 1999. The former KGB spy won legitimacy in his own right at the polls in March 2000. Or so the world thought. In September a Moscow Times exposé pointed to election fraud at all levels of the voting process. The paper found evidence that local officials had burned non-Putin ballots. It found large discrepancies between local tabulations and those later released by the country's national election office. Mr. Putin survived the scandal, as he did protests over his year-long military offensive against the breakaway republic of Chechnya. Harder to stomach: the Putin administration's stall after the Kursk went down in the Barents Sea. As the showcase submarine sat on the ocean floor in August, Mr. Putin delayed publicizing the accident or setting up operations to rescue the ship's 118 crewmembers. He also refused instant offers of assistance from the United States, Britain, and Norway. All hands perished, but not before several penned agonized last testaments in the dark, their hope of rescue draining from the final sealed compartment. "None of us can get to the surface," wrote Lt. Capt. Dmitry Kolesnikov, a 27-year-old newlywed. Russia charged that the sinking was the result of a collision with another vessel, either a U.S. or NATO-tasked sub. But the United States, with corroborating evidence from Norway, denies the charge and says it believes one or two torpedoes exploded onboard, rupturing the nuclear sub's hull. At year's end, Mr. Putin pulled hope from despair for the American family of Edmond Pope. A Moscow court sentenced the Pennsylvania businessman to 20 years in prison for spying. The first American convicted of espionage in Russia in 40 years, Mr. Pope was to serve the sentence in the infamous Lefortovo maximum security prison, where he had already lost 25 pounds during his eight-month ordeal. Mr. Pope admitted that he purchased plans for a Russian navy torpedo, but said they were not secret and had already been sold abroad. The trial outraged U.S. officials and family members, particularly after the prosecution's key witness recanted testimony. On Dec. 14 Mr. Putin pardoned Mr. Pope, 54, who suffers from bone cancer, citing his health and "the high level of ties between the Russian Federation and the United States of America." Middle East: Violent culture gets more violent
Israeli and Palestinian forces entered their worst period of violence in more than 40 years, despite unprecedented concessions to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's quest for sovereign territory. Newly elected Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak proceeded with troop pullouts frozen by former leader Benjamin Netanyahu over Palestinian violations of peace accords. In one historic withdrawal, Israel removed its remaining troops from south Lebanon where they had been for 20 years a buffer between Israelis and Palestinian terrorist enclaves. Despite Mr. Barak's agreement to complete pullouts in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and a March visit to the Holy Land by Pope John Paul II, talks with Mr. Arafat collapsed at Camp David in July. The disagreement, and subsequent fighting, centered on control of Jerusalem's holy sites: Palestinians demanding control over the Jewish temple landmarks destroyed the sites of Rachel's Tomb and Joseph's Tomb. Street battles erupted after Israel's Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount. At year's end, nearly 400 people had been killed in the fighting, and Mr. Barak was forced to resign, with polls showing Mr. Netanyahu likely to take the reins again and reassert a hard line. The United States paid a price for shouldering into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright took ever more personal roles in overseeing the negotiations, Arab extremists struck. On Oct. 12, a suicide bombing run from a tugboat just off the Yemen coast rammed the USS Cole, ripping a multimillion-dollar hole in the destroyer and killing 17 American sailors. The bombing took place amid growing anti-U.S. sentiment in the Middle East over what Arabs see as U.S. support for Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yemeni authorities believe terrorist ringleader Osama Bin Laden, who planned the 1998 bombing of two U.S. embassies, masterminded the attack. China shop: Congress makes trade "permanent"
The U.S. Congress handed China a free trade pass when it granted Permanent Normal Trade Relations in a May-to-September romance with the communist regime in Beijing. Decisive votes in both the House (in May) and Senate (in September) ended a yearly quarrel over renewing China's trade status. That pitted labor unions, most Democrats, and many social conservatives (who opposed trade with China) against business interests, the Clinton White House, and most Republicans (who supported it). For China, the U.S. action was a crucial step toward its entry into the World Trade Organization. But in the cold light of winter, even free-trade supporters were having second thoughts. Already China has reneged on agreements to buy U.S. wheat, meat, and citrus that were part of its new trade privileges. Sen. Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat who hailed the summer trade bill, in December accused China of "foot dragging." If China does not meet the requirements for WTO membership by early 2001, he warned, it will be back to annual congressional reviews. The year-end Index of Economic Freedom found that China's economic reform drive had "stalled" and blamed the government's reluctance to loosen domestic restrictions. Most industrial enterprises continue to be state-owned, consuming two-thirds of the country's urban workforce while producing only one-third of its total output. Chinese officials also continue to restrict individual freedoms. Crackdowns on unaffiliated religious groups-including Protestant and Catholic house churches and sects like the Falun Gong movement-have continued. In August Chinese police arrested 130 members of a Protestant house-church movement in central Henan Province, including three Taiwanese-Americans who were visiting with church members. In October the government issued new regulations that prohibit foreigners living in or visiting China from "expounding the Scriptures"-stipulations that house-church leaders say are nothing new for their already outlawed activity. Firestone firestorm
In August, Firestone announced a recall of millions of its tires, mostly mounted as original equipment on Ford Explorers. More than 100 deaths were linked to the tires. Firestone and Ford initially offered to replace the potentially fatal Firestone tires with ... more Firestone tires. This policy collapsed, partly because the tire maker said it would take a year to produce enough replacements for the 6.4 million recalled tires still on the road; and partly because not everyone wanted more Firestones. Ford then asked other tire makers to help out with replacements. Both Ford and Firestone were at fault, it seems. Ford execs evidently knew about the problem for some time; before the Firestone firestorm this summer, they ordered replacement of the tires on some Explorers sold outside the United States. For its part, Firestone admitted to making some "bad tires," in the words of Bridgestone/Firestone Executive Vice President Jim Lampe, but it tended to blame the problem on the instability of SUVs. Infernal inferno
Smokey Bear must have been ashamed. "Only you can prevent forest fires," says the friendly but authoritative cartoon character, who should have reminded the humans at the National Park Service of this helpful slogan. Park Service officials set off a "prescribed burn," a standard practice to rid wilderness areas of excessively dense and combustible brush that increases the wildfire risk in dry summer months, but they lost control and the fire ran wild. Some 25,000 people had to be evacuated from the path of the spreading blaze that destroyed more than 400 homes and threatened the Los Alamos National Laboratory nuclear facility. By the time the embers cooled, more than 50,000 acres across New Mexico were blackened-as were government eyes. An official report analyzing the cause of the blaze concluded that the Park Service had not properly considered wind conditions, terrain, and vegetation before igniting the prescribed burn. In addition, the Park Service failed to deploy enough firefighters or firefighting equipment on-scene.

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