United Nations A first meeting of presiding officers of the world's parliaments opened in protest Wednesday with lawmakers from more than 140 countries -- but not the United States.
The U.S. Congress didn't send anyone -- and organizers said its leaders didn't even respond to their invitations, an absence raised during the opening session by the speaker of New Zealand's Parliament and much discussed by lawmakers in the U.N. corridors.
But it was the Clinton administration's decision to bar the speakers of the Cuban and Yugoslav Parliaments from entering the United States -- more than the U.S. absence -- that sparked an official protest from the lawmakers at the start of the three-day meeting.
Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba's National Assembly, and Srdja Bozovic, president of the Yugoslav legislature, were denied visas under a law that forbids entry if a visit is considered contrary to the interests of the United States.
"Their exclusion runs counter to the spirit on which the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the United Nations," said a statement on behalf of the conference by its president, Najma Heptulla, deputy leader of India's upper house.
The statement, endorsed with a round of applause from the lawmakers, noted that the conference was convened to support the United Nations and "it is imbued with the spirit of dialogue, which regardless of differences is fundamental to democracy and international cooperation."
Alarcon's personal assistant, another Yugoslav, and an Iranian suspected of terrorism also were denied U.S. visas.
According to Heptulla, 141 countries sent 412 lawmakers, including 152 speakers and presiding officers of parliaments. More than 900 people are attending the conference, she said.
One of the great mysteries was the U.S. absence.
Santiago Romero, head of the IPU's New York office, said invitations were sent to House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. Neither responded, he said.
"Certainly the secretariat of the IPU is very displeased by it, but more so are our members."
Jonathan Hunt, the speaker of New Zealand's House of Representatives, urged more influential countries to ensure that the United States participates at future conferences.
"It is to be regretted that at this conference today, the most powerful country in the world, the United States, is not represented," he said.