18-year-old Ryan White, national symbol of the AIDS crisis, dies

Year
1990
Month Day
April 08

On April 8, 1990, 18-year-old Ryan White dies of pneumonia, due to having contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion. He had been given six months to live in December of 1984 but defied expectations and lived for five more years, during which time his story helped educate the public and dispel widespread misconceptions about HIV/AIDS.

White suffered from hemophilia and thus required weekly blood transfusions. On December 17, 1984, just after his 13th birthday, he was diagnosed with AIDS, which he had contracted from one such transfusion. It was later revealed that roughly 90 percent of American hemophiliacs who had received similar treatments between 1979 and 1984 suffered the same fate. White was given six months to live, but recovered from the illness that had brought his disease to light and eventually felt healthy enough to return to school.

Though the scientific community knew that AIDS could only be transmitted through bodily fluids, the community around White’s Russiaville, Indiana school was paranoid that he would contaminate his classmates. White was denied entry to his school, and when the Indiana Department of Education ruled that he must be admitted the local school board unanimously voted to appeal the decision. From August of 1985 until the following June, White’s family and their opponents—who at one point held a fundraiser in the school gymnasium to support the cause of keeping him out—fought a legal battle that garnered national headlines. A diverse array of public figures appeared with White and spoke on his behalf, including Elton John, Michael Jackson, Alyssa Milano, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and former President Ronald Reagan.

White was eventually allowed to return to school and spent his remaining years living a relatively normal life, although he made regular media appearances in an effort to educate the public about his illness. By the time of his death, just months before he was to graduate high school, White had become one of the leading figures in the movement to destigmatize HIV/AIDS. Several months later, the Ryan White CARE Act became federal law, providing a dramatic boost in funding for the treatment of low-income and un-insured people with HIV/AIDS.

READ MORE: The History of AIDS

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Mexican-American voting rights advocate Willie Velasquez awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom

Year
1995
Month Day
September 29

On September 29, 1995, voting rights advocate Willie Velasquez is posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Velasquez and the organizations he founded are credited with dramatically increasing political awareness and participation among the Hispanic communities of the Southwestern United States.

The son of a union organizer, Velasquez was one of five founders of the Mexican-American Youth Organization, or MAYO. Beginning with voter registration drives and walkouts on college campuses around San Antonio, MAYO expanded to organizing high school students and even succeeded in electing several candidates to local school boards. Inspired by groups like the Black Panthers and leaders like Malcolm X, some of MAYO’s members went on to form the Raza Unida Party, a party that aimed to elect Hispanic candidates without relying on either the Republican or Democratic establishments.

Velasquez worked as a boycott coordinator for the United Farm Workers, a union that organized farm workers across the Southwest and drew national attention to their working conditions in the late 1960s. He then went to work for Raza before embarking upon the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project in 1972. SVREP, whose motto was “Su vota, su voz” (Your vote is your voice), sought to address the poor voter turnout, voter apathy, and institutional disenfranchisement that affected the Hispanic-American community—Velasquez believed that the Hispanic community had much to learn from the civil rights movement and sought to address many of the same systemic issues as prominent leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr.

READ MORE: When Millions of Americans Stopped Eating Grapes in Support of Farm Workers

Though he would not live to see the full effects of his work—he died suddenly of cancer at the age of 44—Willie Velazquez certainly achieved his goal of activating the Hispanic electorate. Today, SVREP claims to have registered over 2.7 million voters, trained over 150,000 political activists, and won over 100 civil rights lawsuits. Though Hispanic voter turnout is often significantly lower than turnout among whites, it has risen sharply in recent decades, increasing tenfold from 1.3 million in the 1994 general election to 13.5 million in 2016. In his White House speech honoring Velasquez, then-President Bill Clinton called Willie “a name synonymous with democracy in America.”

READ MORE: How JFK’s ‘Viva Kennedy’ Campaign Galvanized the Latino Vote

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Ireland grants a divorce for the first time in the country’s history


Year
1997
Month Day
January 17

The Republic of Ireland legally grants a divorce for the first time following a 1995 referendum. The first divorce in Ireland, granted to a terminally ill man who wished to marry his new partner, was a harbinger of the decline of the Catholic Church’s power over the Republic.

The Irish Constitution of 1937 specifically forbade divorce. Though the constitution prohibits the state from adopting an official religion, Ireland is an overwhelmingly Catholic country, and the original document contained many elements of Catholic doctrine. The Church played an outsized role in Irish public life, even by the standards of other heavily Catholic countries. Italy, for example, had legalized divorce by 1970. In 1986, the Irish government put the issue up to a nationwide referendum, but 63.5 percent voted against amending the constitution. A law allowing legal separation passed in 1989. After coming to power in 1994, a “Rainbow Coalition” government composed of center-left parties one again propagated a referendum on amending the constitution to allow divorce.

Both Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa publicly endorsed the “No” side, a sign of the seriousness with which the Church opposed this perceived challenge to its authority. Nonetheless, the Church conceded that it would not be a sin for Catholics to vote “Yes.” Ultimately, the “Yes” campaign ran up huge numbers in urban areas, winning by the razor-thin margin of 50.3 percent to 49.7. Numerous attempts were made to challenge the result, but to no avail.

Although the 1995 referendum only legalized divorce in cases where couples had been separated for at least four years, proponents of the separation of church and state hailed it as a victory to build upon.

“We’re bringing Ireland into the 20 Century at the dawn of the 21,” said Mags O’Brien, a pro-divorce campaigner. Similarly “overdue” reforms would follow. 2015 saw the legalization of same-sex marriage with 61 percent of the vote, and 66 percent of voters approved an amendment to legalize abortion in 2018. In 2019, another amendment greatly relaxed the requirements for obtaining a legal divorce, doing away with the period of separation. 

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Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia kills 19 U.S. airmen

Year
1996
Month Day
June 25

On June 25, 1996, a tanker truck loaded with 25,000 pounds of explosives rips through the U.S. Air Force military housing complex Khobar Towers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, killing 19 U.S. airmen and wounding nearly 500 others.

The terrorist attack that blew off much of the eight-story Building 131, leaving a crater 50 feet wide and 16 feet deep, was the deadliest attack against U.S. forces since the 1983 bombing of a Marine barracks in Beirut that left 241 dead.

The bombers, later identified as members of the pro-Iran Islamic militant group Hezbollah, parked the truck near the towers that were home to 2,000 American military personnel who were assigned to the King Abdul Aziz Air Base to patrol southern Iraqi no-fly zones. They escaped before setting off the explosion.

Investigators found the attack had been planned for more than three years by members of the Saudi Hezbollah, with backing from Iran, as a way to force U.S. troops out of Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf. Hezbollah and Iran were found guilty by a U.S. federal court in 2006, and Iran was ordered to pay $254.5 million to survivors. That money has not been collected.

In 2001, 13 Saudis and one Lebanese man were indicted in the attack by the U.S., with Attorney General John Ashcroft stating “… the Iranian government inspired, supported and supervised members of Saudi Hezbollah.” Charges included conspiracy to kill Americans and U.S. employees, to use weapons of mass destruction and to destroy U.S. property, plus murder and bombing.

Iran denied involvement in the attack, and Saudi Arabia said they would not extradite those charged who were in their custody. None of the indicted have been brought to court.

Nearly 20 years later, Ahmad Ibrahim al-Mughassil, a key Hezbollah operative implicated in the attack, was captured and arrested in Beirut in 2015 and moved to Saudi Arabia for interrogation. In 2018, Iran was ordered to pay victims $104.7 million by a U.S. federal judge. 

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The euro debuts


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Year
1999
Month Day
January 04

New Year’s Day is the dawn of a new era in Europe, as 11 nations adopt a single currency, the euro. Now the official currency of 19 members of the European Union, as well as the nations of Kosovo and Montenegro, the euro’s introduction had a profound effect on the global economy and was a watershed moment in the continent’s history.

Beginning in the 1970s, European leaders had discussed creating a single currency. The plan became official with 1992 Maastricht Treaty, which formed the European Union and paved the way for the creation of a single European currency. The new currency’s name was unveiled in 1995. On December 31, 1998 11 countries “locked in” their exchange rates relative to each other and to the euro. At midnight, their currencies officially ceased to exist. For the next three years, the “legacy currencies” remained legal tender, but electronic transfers and other non-physical monetary transactions began to use euros. Greece would join the Eurozone between this initial introduction and the currency’s debut in physical form.

Mints throughout Europe printed 7.4 billion notes and struck 38.2 billion coins to ensure enough euros would be available by 1/1/2002. Banks issued “starter packs” containing small amounts of euros starting in December 2001 to familiarize people with the new money. Finally, a year later, the euro formally entered the world as legal tender. The first official purchase took place on the far-flung French island of Réunion, where euros were used to purchase a pound of lychees. Over the next two months, participating nations officially had two currencies in order to give people time to adjust. Businesses advertised prices both in euros and in legacy currencies, and some were accused of using the switch as an excuse to raise prices. Overall, however, the process of creating a new currency for a population of over 300 million people went remarkably smoothly.

The euro has long been a source of controversy. Conservatives in the United Kingdom opposed the idea of a European currency, and both the UK and Denmark negotiated opt-outs despite their membership in the EU. The eurozone’s greatest test came during the European sovereign debt crisis, which began in 2009, as many central banks dealing in euros were unable to pay their debts and were bailed out by other eurozone nations or EU institutions. Despite continued concerns, seven EU nations have met the criteria and acceded to the euro since 2002, and the nations of Kosovo and Montenegro have also adopted it as their official currency.

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Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega surrenders to U.S.


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Year
1990
Month Day
January 03

On January 3, 1990, Panama’s General Manuel Antonio Noriega, after holing up for 10 days at the Vatican embassy in Panama City, surrenders to U.S. military troops to face charges of drug trafficking. Noriega was flown to Miami the following day and crowds of citizens on the streets of Panama City rejoiced. On July 10, 1992, the former dictator was convicted of drug trafficking, money laundering and racketeering and sentenced to 40 years in prison.

Noriega, who was born in Panama in 1938, was a loyal soldier to General Omar Torrijos, who seized power in a 1968 coup. Under Torrijos, Noriega headed up the notorious G-2 intelligence service, which harassed and terrorized people who criticized the Torrijos regime. Noriega also became a C.I.A. operative, while at the same time getting rich smuggling drugs.

In 1981, Omar Torrijos died in a plane crash and after a two-year power struggle, Noriega emerged as general of Panama’s military forces. He became the country’s de facto leader, fixing presidential elections so he could install his own puppet officials. Noriega’s rule was marked by corruption and violence. He also became a double agent, selling American intelligence secrets to Cuba and Eastern European governments. In 1987, when Panamanians organized protests against Noriega and demanded his ouster, he declared a national emergency, shut down radio stations and newspapers and forced his political enemies into exile.

That year the United States cut off aid to Panama and tried to get Noriega to resign; in 1988, the U.S. began considering the use of military action to put an end to his drug trafficking. Noriega voided the May 1989 presidential election, which included a U.S.-backed candidate, and in December of that year he declared his country to be in a state of war with the United States. Shortly afterward, an American marine was killed by Panamanian soldiers. President George H.W. Bush authorized “Operation Just Cause,” and on December 20, 1989, 13,000 U.S. troops were sent to occupy Panama City, along with the 12,000 already there, and seize Noriega. During the invasion, 23 U.S. troops were killed in action and over 300 were wounded. Approximately 450 Panamanian troops were killed; estimates for the number of civilians who died range from several hundred to several thousand, with thousands more injured.

Noriega, derogatorily nicknamed “Pineapple Face” in reference to his pockmarked skin, died in Panama City, Panama, on May 29, 2017.

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Russian forces enter Chechnya


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Year
1994
Month Day
December 11

In the largest Russian military offensive since the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, thousands of troops and hundreds of tanks pour into the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya. Encountering only light resistance, Russian forces had by evening pushed to the outskirts of the Chechen capital of Grozny, where several thousand Chechen volunteers vowed a bitter fight against the Russians.

With the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Chechnya, like many of the other republics encompassed by the former Soviet Union, declared its independence. However, unlike Georgia, the Ukraine, Uzbekistan, and the other former Soviet states, Chechnya held only the barest autonomy under Soviet rule and was not considered one of the 15 official Soviet republics. Instead, Chechnya is regarded as one of many republics within the Russian Federation. Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who permitted the dissolution of the Soviet Union, would not tolerate the secession of a state within territorial Russia.

About the size of Connecticut and located in southeastern Russia on the Caspian Sea, Chechnya was conquered by the Russians in the 1850s as the Russian empire pushed south toward the Middle East. Its people are largely Muslim and fiercely independent, and the region has been a constant irritant to its Russian and Soviet rulers.

In August 1991, Dzhozkhar Dudayev, a Chechen politician and former Soviet air force general, toppled Chechnya’s local communist government and established an anti-Russian autocratic state. President Yeltsin feared the secession of Chechnya would prompt a domino effect of independence movements within the vast Russian Federation. He also hoped to recover Chechnya’s valuable oil resources. After ineffective attempts at funding Chechen opposition groups, a Russian invasion began on December 11, 1994.

After the initial gains of the Russian army, the Chechen rebels demonstrated a fierce resistance in Grozny, and thousands of Russian troops died and many more Chechen civilians were killed during almost two years of heavy fighting. In August 1996, Grozny was retaken by the Chechen rebels after a year of Russian occupation, and a cease-fire was declared. In 1997, the last humiliated Russian troops left Chechnya. Despite a peace agreement that left Chechnya a de facto independent state, Chechnya remained officially part of Russia.

In 1999, Yeltsin’s government ordered a second invasion of Chechnya after bombings in Moscow and other cities were linked to Chechen militants. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Yeltsin’s handpicked successor as Russian leader, said of the Chechen terrorists, “we will rub them out, even in the toilet.” In 2000, President Putin escalated Russian military involvement in Chechnya after terrorist bombings in Russian cities continued. In this second round of post-Soviet fighting in Chechnya, the Russian army has been accused of many atrocities in its efforts to suppress Chechen militancy. A peace agreement remains elusive.

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Amazon opens for business

Year
1995
Month Day
July 16

On July 16, 1995, Amazon officially opens for business as an online bookseller. Within a month, the fledgling retailer had shipped books to all 50 U.S. states and to 45 countries. Founder Jeff Bezos’s motto was “get big fast,” and Seattle-based Amazon eventually morphed into an e-commerce colossus, selling everything from groceries to furniture to live ladybugs, and helping to revolutionize the way people shop.

Bezos earned an undergraduate degree in computer science and electrical engineering from Princeton University in 1986 then worked in the financial services industry in New York City. In 1994, after realizing the commercial potential of the Internet and determining that books might sell well online, he moved to Washington State and founded Amazon. He initially dubbed the business Cadabra (as in abracadabra) but after someone misheard the name as “cadaver,” Bezos decided to call his startup Amazon, after the enormous river in South America, a moniker he believed wouldn’t box him into offering just one type of product or service.

In the spring of 1995, Bezos invited a small group of friends and former colleagues to check out a beta version of Amazon’s website, and the first-ever order was placed on April 3 of that year, for a science book titled “Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies.” When Amazon.com went live to the general public in July 1995, the company boldly billed itself as “Earth’s biggest bookstore,” although sales initially were drummed up solely by word of mouth and Bezos assisted with assembling orders and driving the packages to the post office. However, by the end of 1996 Amazon had racked up $15.7 million in revenues, and in 1997 Bezos took the company public with an initial public offering that raised $54 million. That same year, Bezos personally delivered his company’s one-millionth order, to a customer in Japan who’d purchased a Windows NT manual and a Princess Diana biography. In 1998, Amazon extended beyond books and started selling music CDs, and by the following year it had added more product categories, such as toys, electronics and tools.

By December 1999, Amazon had shipped 20 million items to 150 countries around the globe. That same month, Bezos was named Time magazine’s Person of the Year. In 2000, the company introduced a service allowing individual sellers and other outside merchants to peddle their products alongside Amazon’s own items. Meanwhile, Amazon continued to spend heavily on expansion and didn’t post its first full-year profit until 2003.

In 2007, Amazon debuted its Kindle e-reader; four years later, the company announced it was selling more e-books than print books. Also in 2011, Amazon’s tablet computer, the Kindle Fire, was released. Among a variety of other ventures, Amazon launched a cloud computing and video on demand services in 2006; a studio that develops movies and TV series, in 2010; and an online marketplace for fine art, in 2013, which has featured original works by artists including Claude Monet and Norman Rockwell. Additionally, Amazon has acquired a number of companies, including Zappos and Whole Foods. In 2015, Amazon surpassed Walmart as the world’s most valuable retailer. Two decades after its founding and with Bezos still at the helm, Amazon’s market value was $250 billion. In 2017, Bezos was named the richest man in the world. 

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Flight 800 explodes over Long Island

Year
1996
Month Day
July 17

Shortly after takeoff from New York’s Kennedy International Airport, a TWA Boeing 747 jetliner bound for Paris explodes over the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 230 people aboard. Flight 800 had just received clearance to initiate a climb to cruise altitude when it exploded without warning. Because the plane was loaded with fuel for the long transatlantic journey, it vaporized within moments, creating a fireball seen almost all along the coastline of Long Island.

The tragedy came just two days before the opening of the XXVI Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia, and many suspected terrorism. Suspicions of foul play seemed to be confirmed when a number of eyewitnesses reported that they had seen what appeared to be a missile shoot up toward the airline an instant before the explosion. The U.S. Navy and the FBI, in conjunction with the National Safety Transportation Board, launched an extensive investigation of the incident, collecting the scattered wreckage of the aircraft out of the Atlantic and reconstructing the plane in a closely guarded hangar. Despite continuing eyewitness reports, authorities did not come forward with any evidence of a missile or a bomb, and the investigation stretched on.

When it was revealed that several U.S. Navy vessels were training in the Long Island area on the night of the blast, some began to suspect that Flight 800 had been accidentally downed by a navy test missile. U.S. authorities ruled out the possibility of an errant missile strike by the navy, but a number of conspiracists, including former White House press secretary Pierre Salinger, supported the theory. The much-criticized Flight 800 investigation ended in late 1998, with investigators concluding that the explosion resulted from mechanical failure, not from a bomb or a missile.

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First NATO Military Action


Year
1994
Month Day
February 28

In the first military action in the 45-year history of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), U.S. fighter planes shoot down four Serbian warplanes engaged in a bombing mission in violation of Bosnia’s no-fly zone.

The United States, 10 European countries, and Canada founded NATO in 1949 as a safeguard against Soviet aggression. With the end of the Cold War, NATO members approved the use of its military forces for peacekeeping missions in countries outside the alliance and in 1994 agreed to enforce U.N. resolutions enacted to bring about an end to the bloody conflict in the former Yugoslavia. In 1994 and 1995, NATO planes enforced the no-fly zone over Bosnia-Herzegovina and struck at Bosnian Serb military positions and airfields on a number of occasions.

On December 20, 1995, NATO began the mass deployment of 60,000 troops to enforce the Dayton peace accords, signed in Paris by the leaders of the former Yugoslavia on December 14. The NATO troops took over from a U.N. peacekeeping force that had failed to end the fighting since its deployment in early 1992, although the U.N. troops had proved crucial in the distribution of humanitarian aid to the impoverished population of Bosnia. The NATO force, with its U.S. support and focused aim of enforcing the Dayton agreement, proved more successful in maintaining the peace in the war-torn region.

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