International Papers

Goodbye to an Annus Horribilis

“After promising to become the dull stepdaughter of the much-celebrated millennium, 2001 has claimed its place in the history books,” declared South Africa’s Sunday Times. And how! The Japan Times described 2001 as “a year of fear and confusion”; the Sydney Morning Herald called it “a year of stress and strain”; and Britain’s Observer dubbed it “364 days … and 9/11.” A commentator in the Herald moaned, “The only reason most people I know will be celebrating tonight will be to put 2001 defiantly behind them and hope that what lies ahead will be better.”

In Africa, disease and despots dominated the news in 2001. The Sunday Times observed, “Osama bin Laden aside, it is a more ominous killer whose shadow falls across [South Africa]: Aids.” As many as one in eight South Africans are HIV-positive, and although President Thabo Mbeki has officially abandoned his belief that HIV does not cause AIDS, suspicion lingers that his medical apostasy is responsible for the nation’s failure to deal with the pandemic. In Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe seems determined to hold onto power in the March 2002 elections by whatever means necessary. In August, editorial writers the world over were appalled by government-backed seizures of white farms and the resulting destruction of the country’s economy, but the illegal land-grabs continue. As the Guardian reported in December, the regime is running out of friends: Earlier this month, Mbeki finally spoke out against Mugabe’s rule of terror and, according to Zimbabwe’s beleaguered independent Daily News, a recently passed U.S. law may have put Mugabe “between a rock and a hard place: if he wants to win, he cannot end the violence. If he wants his victory to be accepted by the rest of the world, then he has to end the violence.” Elsewhere on the continent, wars drag on in Algeria, Angola, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone, and Sudan.

In Central and South America, the story line changed. Peru, where sexy stories of Vladvideos, lost presidential birth certificates, and election irregularities faded after Alejandro Toledo became the nation’s first president of Indian heritage in June, resumed its role as the kind of country that only hits the headlines—or, more likely, the international news roundup section—in cases of natural disasters or freak accidents (see below). Back in July 2000, Vicente Fox’s election in Mexico was likened to the fall of the Berlin Wall; on Dec. 29, 2001, the Irish Times declared Fox’s presidency a failure. Sept. 11 has ended talks of immigration reform, the Zapatista rebels rejected his Indian rights package, and the economy is on the skids. The big story is Argentina’s economic crisis, which, as of Monday morning, left the country without a leader, when interim President Adolfo Rodríguez Saá resigned a week after he took the job. His designated successor declined the presidency. Rodríguez Saá quit when his Cabinet resigned en masse Sunday rather than support his recovery policies. An op-ed in the Buenos Aires Herald warned that Argentina might soon go the way of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and East Germany: “For the last year or so, Argentina has been edging nearer to the queue that is awaiting its turn outside the knacker’s yard where ‘failed states’ are broken up. Some suspect it will soon barge its way towards the front.” The weekend’s dramatic events may mean that one of the Financial Times’ predictions for 2002 is already a bust; the paper opined, “Debt default and a new currency should give the government a chance to sooth social tensions.” The FT’s prognosticator predicted that “Venezuela, where President Hugo Chavez’s radical populism has polarised politics, is the most likely trouble spot.”

Is there any hope for Asia? Not according to the Nationof Pakistan, which predicted, “With India and Pakistan at flashpoint, Afghanistan’s future uncertain and many national insurgencies festering, the grim forecast by analysts for Asia in 2002 is more bloodshed and death.” As the Japan Times observed, in 2001, “Indonesia grew tired of the erratic behavior of President Abdurrahman Wahid, and replaced him with the untested Ms. Megawati Sukarnoputri.” In July, pundits had low expectations for the taciturn Megawati, but Indonesians now appear to have run out of patience. In the last few days, the Jakarta Posthas attacked Megawati’s failure to advance women, chastised her for celebrating the New Year in Bali while her government preaches austerity to the citizenry, and hinted that she values national unity more than human rights. Reconciliation between the two Koreas is foundering, and North Korea has been floated as a possible target for the war on terrorism. The Hong Kong iMail declared 2001 “China’s Year” after it won the right to host the 2008 Olympics and was accepted into the World Trade Organization, but the future is full of challenges. Next autumn the president and prime minister will leave their posts, and as China attempts to embrace capitalism, “its interactions with the outside world will become more complicated.” Although the Tamil Tigers called a cease-fire after the election of a new Sri Lankan government, there were no fundamental compromises in the civil war that has cost an average of 2,000 lives per year since 1972. Tensions between India and Pakistan continue to rise, with papers from both countries ( Dawnof Pakistan and the Times of India, for example) saying they didn’t want war but would be willing to fight if necessary. In July, Indo-Pakistani relations took an up turn when the nations’ leaders met in Agra, but after the October bombing of the state assembly in Srinagar, Kashmir, and the December suicide assault on the Indian parliament, there is, in the words of the Nation, “a very real threat of war.”

In Israel, 2001 saw the election of Ariel Sharon; the publication of the Mitchell Report; a series of suicide bombings in June, August, and December; and the Israeli government’s restriction of Yasser Arafat’s movements. On Dec. 31, Ha’aretz reported that, lacking the support required to pass the 2002 budget, the government has decided to postpone a vote. Similar legislative shortfalls initiated former Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s downfall in early 2000.

Despite the failure to capture Osama Bin Laden, allies praised the speedy prosecution of the Afghan campaign. A satirical roundup in the Sydney Morning Herald noted, “The long, pointless war against terrorism that the Left warned against grinds on and on, just like Vietnam, achieving nothing, apart from the liberation of Afghanistan from despotism within the space of a month.” An editorial in the South China Morning News typified the calls for an end to the bombing:

Afghans have been through enough suffering after 23 years of occupation, civil war, drought, harsh winters and food shortages. Now they have a new government and it is that authority to which the US should now answer. It says the bombing campaign should end, possibly within days, and Washington must take notice of its wishes.

For Australia, the happy days of 2000, when Sydney hosted the “best ever” Olympic Games and the country touted a spirit of reconciliation with the aboriginal population, seem “an age ago,” according to the Sydney Morning Herald. 2001 was full of dingo attacks; the Tampa incident, where the government intervened on the high seas to turn away 435 mostly Afghan, Iraqi, and Pakistani asylum seekers; acrimonious federal elections; and a devastating wave of bushfires caused by lightning strikes and arsonists.

Europe moved calmly toward the euro, although Italian Prime Minister  Silvio Berlusconi admitted, “We will all feel nostalgic about the lira, especially someone who, like me, has managed to earn loads of them.” Despite the euro-optimism, a second attempt to gain Ireland’s ratification of the Treaty of Nice, which governs of the expansion of the European Union, “may well be the trickiest political problem” of 2002, according to the Irish Times. (The paper called the “No” victory in the June 2001 referendum “Ireland’s lowest moment in the European Community.”) In Britain, 6 million animals were killed during the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, but despite criticisms of the government’s handling of the crisis, Tony Blair’s Labor Party was re-elected with the largest margin in British history, leaving the opposition in disarray, and Blair won rave reviews for his role in building the post-Sept.-11 international coalition. The arrest of three suspected IRA men in the area of Colombia governed by the left-wing guerrilla group FARC in August, along with President Bush’s war on terrorism of global reach, signaled hard times for Europe’s terror groups—the IRA agreed (again) to decommission its weapons, and several key members of the Basque separatist group ETA were arrested in the fall.

2001 redux: Test your international news IQ with year-end quizzes from the Sydney Morning Herald, Toronto’s Globe and Mail, and Britain’s Independentand  Sunday Times.

Ending the year with a bang: According to Spain’s El Mundo, President Toledo banned the production, importation, and sale of fireworks in Peru Sunday after more than 290 people were killed when a vendor sparked a fire that destroyed a historic section of Lima. In China, nine people died in a series of explosions at fireworks factories in Jiangxi province, where more than 40 people perished in March in similar circumstances. The Philippine Daily Inquirer bemoaned Filipinos’ love for New Year pyrotechnics that “pack the wallop of a grenade or a small bomb”:

We must really be a stupid, masochistic people and some of us must have suicidal or homicidal tendencies because we persist in firing guns and exploding firecrackers that have the potential TNT power to maim and kill. … For many people, the bigger, the more lethal the firecracker, the better. The desire for a bigger bang must be a manifestation of our people’s love for excess and ostentation. Or our subconscious desire to hurt ourselves.