In this week’s edition, we’ll forget it’s 2014 and continue to write 2013 on all letters and checks until March.
And now… for something completely different! A summary of the year 2013. We can’t describe everything that went on this year*, but we’ll look further into the stories that dominated the headlines, and those that slipped through them.
This year, we here at “What’s the Deal?” have decided to have a nice end to the year with some current events analysis that should go quite nicely with that spiral ham.
So sit back in your new wool socks, grab those sugar cookies by the new waffle maker and chew over some of the events of this year that made the headlines, and some that didn’t.
*editors here at “WTD” rejected continued propositions from (name redacted) to write a comprehensive summary of events from all 365 days.
The Current: A Remarkable Year
What can we say to sum up 2013? What were the lasting images, the important stories, and the people whose quotes have been engraved in our minds?
We must include the terrible, the dramatic, and the heart-wrenching; these moments are part of life and part of history. But we cannot neglect or forget the positive, the successes, and the uplifting. To ignore the underreported positives would be a disservice to the people who fought for justice, civil rights, created new technologies, and broke barriers.
Now, let’s stop the lectures and let’s get to the year that was!
This unfortunately ever-present theme of humanity intensified this year in several areas of the world and with greater world coverage.
Nearly three years into the extremely violent civil war in Syria, neither the government forces under President Bashar al-Assad nor the myriad of rebel force groups have the clear upper hand.
In 2013, the war intensified with Assad’s forces using chemical weapons in August, nearly drawing in military force from the West. Diplomatic efforts to bring the two sides together to form a peace treaty are languishing – in the meantime, Assad’s airforce is beginning to pummel rebel holdings in Aleppo. With so many nations dragged into the conflict through refugees or supporting either side, or aiming for peace, it becomes harder to deescalate and easier for the conflict to destabilize the entire region (see Iraq).
- Central Africa:
While two conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in Mali began to wind down in 2013, political instability and violence have risen to dramatic heights in the Central African Republic and in South Sudan. The CAR has seen their government dissolve amidst a rebel group that has pitted the majority Christians against minority Muslims. South Sudan has evolved from fighting against its former parent country (Sudan) and now faces extremely volatile rival groups and clans fighting for control.
- Southeast Asia:
In Thailand, battles against ethnic Malays continue a longstanding political conflict, and in Myanmar, the ethnic civil wars of the majority Burmese against the ethnic Karen, Kachin, and others also continued. Most distressingly within Myanmar was the religious atrocities committed against Muslims in Rakhine state by Buddhists. While much has been achieved towards creating a more open democratic society in Myanmar since 2011, these conflicts are only serving to hold back the country.
It’s All Politics, Baby
Topping the list of political developments in 2013 are the controversial: Voting Rights, Gay Rights, Gun Laws, Privacy, and Marijuana. And oh yeah, health care.
- Since the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in December of 2012, new gun law proposals ranging from eliminating assault weapons to arming teachers in public schools have been floated. To the consternation of many, gun laws and background check laws have retained the status quo, as have the attacks: two school shootings in Colorado and Nevada, and a gunman shooting 12 at the Washington, D.C. Navy Yard.
- In June, the Supreme Court overturned one key aspect of the 1965 Voting Rights Act which required Federal approval of any state voting laws in states which had a history of racial discrimination (Jim Crow states). Advocates of state Voter ID laws cheered, while civil rights groups severely criticized the court and worry about the restriction of voting for the poor and rural.
- The Supreme Court also overturned a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that had prevented same-sex spouses from gaining Federal benefits. Now, same-sex marriages that are legal in 16 states now will also come with the same federal benefits that heterosexual couples receive. The Supreme Court will likely hear further cases for and against state laws on Gay Marriage in 2014.
- This year, voters in Colorado and Washington state approved a law to legalize cannabis going beyond the 15 other states that had decriminalized possession. Uruguay became the first country to legalize pot and many Central American countries are considering legalizing the drug as a new measure in combating drug violence. Both marijuana legislation and Gay marriage rights seem to be turning a significant tide after a long fight. Will more states join the fray in 2014?
- In October, the new health care exchanges (marketplaces) that sell healthcare plans under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act opened to shoppers in the U.S. While lots of people attempted to sign up (a positive sign) before the December deadline, the capacity of many state websites and the federal website, was immediately overwhelmed. The inability of the website to accommodate healthcare shoppers along with issues of people unable to keep existing plans (depsite government reassurance to the contrary) has provided plenty of ammunition for opponents of the law. New health plans begin to kick in on January 1, 2014, but the controversy of the law has no set date to end. In total in 2013, approximately 2.1 million people signed up through the new healthcare system – about 1 million short of initial estimates.
- In perhaps one of the biggest revelations in the past decade, it was revealed that the National Security Agency has been acquiring massive amounts of metadata from phone calls, information from websites and emails, and spying on world leaders. Though this was and is still technically legal (on very fragile ground), many challenges to the law have been brought forth in addition to a large public backlash. The extent of the snooping was a surprise to many, though with the extreme size of the intelligence community, perhaps some of this should have been expected.
Instability and Revolution
I know what you’re thinking: “Don’t these two fall into the ‘conflict’ category?” Well, technically I suppose they can, but among the tens of different countries experiencing these tumults, it is helpful to separate those that are truly in a civil war with extreme refugee situations. While we could include most countries in this category, 2013 had a few which stood out in particular.
In 2013, Egypt was in the middle of the first year of its first elected President, Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. But on July 3 (unfortunately coinciding with my birthday) Mr. Morsi was removed from power by the military elite. Although there were many problems with Morsi’s government including dissolving the elected parliament and stuffing the judiciary and executive cabinet with Muslim Brothers, he was still removed from power via a coup (bolstered by popular protests), not a constitutional process (a common thread in Egyptian history).
Since his removal, and even during his presidency, the country has been bitterly divided – pitting secularists who applaud the ruling military regime versus Morsi’s mostly Islamic supporters. For months, the military regime has cracked down on protesters they label as terrorists and handing down stringent charges against the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters. Though elections are scheduled for this coming year, the dreams of Tahrir Square and the Arab Spring have truly been squeezed in Egypt.
President Nuri al-Maliki ‘s increasing rifts between his Shia/Sunni government have led to him punishing Sunni rivals and unleashing sectarian violence and sewing distrust in Maliki’s government. This security, initially held with help from the U.S.(2003-2011), has been breached by Islamist groups who have begun to grow and wreak havoc from Baghdad to Tikrit. The far reaching effects of the war in Syria have brought fighters back into Iraq and strive for their own Islamic State of Iraq.
As we recently discussed in our last post, the transition of political participation for most of Thailand has led to a divided political landscape between the less well off rural, and the more educated urban middle classes. This juncture surfaced as protesters sounded off in November against the government of Yingluck Shinawatra after a midnight vote on an amnesty measure for her brother, the former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The protests are still ongoing and the government has already called for elections, but it seems as if this will not solve the ongoing issue.
Though the AK government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan is safe for now, the country is experiencing a backlash politically against the increasingly conservative leader. In June, thousands of protesters encamped in Istanbul fought with police over a proposal for construction in a public park – a movement that has turned into a protest against Erdogan’s increasingly conservative actions. In addition, Erdogan has soured in his relationship with the U.S. and its other NATO allies over Israel, Syria, and the West’s foreign policy. He may have to turn over power in 2014 to the current President (and much more popular) Abdullah Gul. Given Turkey’s strategic location and influence in the Middle East along with its newly acquired economic power, the U.S. would do well to repair frayed relations.
While Lagos, the commercial capital, is a bustling metropolis that shows the intense economic growth in Nigeria at a 6.5% growth rate, the overall political shape of the country is unfortunately degrading. In the country’s North, a militant group known as Boko Haram (or “western education is forbidden” – deemed a terrorist group by the U.S.) has been destabilizing the northern cities of Kano and Maidiguri and attempting to impose strict sharia law in the areas it controls. The group has been attacking churches, schools, and staging suicide bombings while fighting for control over these cities against the Nigerian military.
The efforts by President Goodluck Jonathan have so far been inadequate to protect civilians and quell the violence from the desert north. While we’ve written about the roots of this security issue in a prior post, other issues threaten Nigeria. Corruption that is an embedded culture in the Nigerian government threatens free elections and the welfare of the people. Poor infrastructure and shady dealings in oil are both weak spots in the economy. While the overall economy grew significantly in 2013, Nigeria faces extreme headwinds in providing security and prosperity to its citizens.
Many people worried that the presidential elections in Kenya this spring would have much of the same violence that occurred in the elections of 2008. This election was a pleasant surprise in the lack of violence as voter turnout was huge but no intertribal violence followed – even though the election results were disputed. Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of the first president of independent Kenya, and a Kikuyu was declared the winner of the Presidency. While the lack of tribal violence and the relatively clean elections are commendable, Mr. Kenyatta is still facing a big challenge. The International Criminal Court has found Mr. Kenyatta guilty of crimes against humanity for allegedly instigating the intertribal violence in the last election. His trial is still set to proceed, whether Mr. Kenyatta is present or not.
Chile had seen massive protests over the last 3 years mostly from young people who opposed a government plan to nix free higher education at public institutions (along with austerity cuts in other areas). Earlier in December, it was Michele Bachelet who won a resounding victory by appealing to the voters who favored continuing government programs instead of rejecting them. This is her second time as president, (her first term was 2006-2010) and will try and continue economic growth that the outgoing president Sebastian Pinera had initiated, but will try and close the gap between the wealthy and poor. Ms. Bachelet will try to implement reforms in elections, corporate taxes, and education.
- New York City/Boston:
Much like the election of Ms. Bachelet, America’s biggest city also voted for a progressive reformer bent on closing the gap between rich and poor in New York. Bill DeBlasio, the mayor elect in New York, will be staunchly different than the business minded outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg. While there were many gains for the city during Mr. Bloomberg’s tenure including reduced crime, upgraded tourist areas and overall economic growth, the difference between rich and poor has never been greater and some of the policies used to reach lower crime (such as the Stop and Frisk policy) are very controversial and opposed by Mr. DeBlasio. Many say the enormous cost of living in New York is the greatest threat to closing the gap and a tough task for Mr. DeBlasio will be to find how to make more affordable housing available to New Yorkers.
Another American city with skyrocketing housing prices working to control the gap between rich and poor is Boston, which elected Marty Walsh to replace the 20 year reign of outgoing Mayor Thomas Menino. Mr. Menino held tremendous sway over many influential groups and parts of the city, enabling him to build up decrepit parts of the city like the Seaport District and by attracting a highly educated workforce and high tech industries that followed.
Mr. Walsh will face much of the same challenges that Menino attempted to tackle but failed to achieve, such as reducing violent crime in neighborhoods such as Dorchester (Walsh’s boyhood neighborhood), reducing longstanding racial tensions throughout the city, increasing affordable housing, and improving education. The third item, education, was the main campaign theme of Mr. Walsh who knows that Bostonians want their children fairly educated without the threat of violence or lack of materials. Gentrification of several neighborhoods has forced many people from their apartments to find cheaper rent elsewhere. Bostonians spend a great majority of their income on housing and increasingly and many are finding living in the hub to be too expensive.
In June, Iran elected (from a select group approved by the Ayatollah) a new president, Hassan Rohani, to replace the outgoing, irascible President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. From the beginning, speculation abounded about the potential for Mr. Rohani and Mr. Obama to begin to repair the relationship that was once very close, but was torn into tatters following the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and has been brusque at best since (no leaders of the 2 countries has spoken since). While he has been no radical reformer for the Islamic Republic (he still has to answer to Ayatollah Khamenei) a phone call with President Obama in September broke the ice and a short-term nuclear deal was struck between Iran and the G-6 that stopped enrichment and allowed IAEA inspectors full access to formerly secret operations.
While many, including Israel’s president Binyamin Netanyahu (reelected in 2013) called the deal rotten and an appeasement to a country that wishes Israel harm, most believe the deal is an honest attempt to restore the tattered Iranian economy as well as halt the weapons making process. The confetti though, should be kept until a longer term deal can be made, and until Iran discontinues its financing of groups such as Hizbullah and others. The West is far from cozy-ing up to the Islamic Republic, but Mr. Rohani seems to be a much better person to work with than his predecessor.
In the fall, Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Christian Democrats won reelection and formed a coalition government with the Social Democrats. Seen by many as the calm, pragmatic leader throughout the Euro crisis, her reputation as a steady hand at the helm poised to make difficult (often politically unpopular) decisions won her party a return to power in Berlin. One of the most pressing issues aside from problems stemming from the Euro crisis is the country’s energy policy, known as energiewiede. This policy was enacted to steer Germany sharply away from nuclear power towards wind and solar. Instead of a quick and easy transition to green power, a lack of wind infrastructure and capacity has forced Germany to revert back to consuming more coal; and increasingly, natural gas.
Following the end of Hugo Chavez’s presidency when he lost his battle with cancer, his chosen successor, Nicolas Maduro won a disputed election against the mayor of Caracas and opposition leader Henrique Capriles. Mr. Maduro had a full monopoly on the media to use for his campaign and other advantages reserved for the successor in the Chavista regime. Mr. Maduro, a former bus driver, has followed Mr. Chavez’s policies of providing enormous public benefits while squeezing private businesses and blaming the opposition and the U.S. for its economic woes.
Discovery and Success!
- The Curiosity rover continues to send fantastic photos, soil content, topographical information, and possible signs of ancient life on the red planet.
- Studies have now been confirmed on the importance of gut microbes and the microbiome to overall human health. The microbiome is considered instrumental to understanding obesity, diabetes, malnourishment, and even AIDS.
- Major advancements in cancer immunotherapy, or treatment using the bodies own immune system, have created a breakthrough in understanding how people may be able to live with cancer – a real success story in oncology.
- In global development, three of the 8 Millennium Development Goals have been reached! While this success should be hailed and celebrated, there is no stoppage of the work that needs to be done. The success has been largely due to the economic growth in eastern Asia which in turn helped erase extreme poverty and hunger. Great work remains to be completed in education, combating neglected tropical diseases, and in promoting gender equality – arguably the most important.
- Incredible creations in stereolithography/additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, have made this technology available to households beyond the lab so that anyone can create 3D models molded from a digital outlay. Most incredibly has been the creation of live human tissue using a type of 3D printing. This may make an organ donor waiting list a thing of the past and free up many lives that have been cut short for lack of availability.
- While the global recession still has many reeling, much of the rich world has started to rebound including the U.S. which has posted records in the stock market and great gains in energy, and in overall economic growth. Unemployment, while still very high among young people and the long term unemployed has improved, lowering to 7% in November.
- Meanwhile, while political gridlock caused the U.S. government to shutdown for 16 days in October, a light at the end of the tunnel appeared in December when a budget deal was passed and signed by the President. While this should be simply a business as usual activity for a governing body, we give Congress a thumbs up here for accomplishing something positive.
Unfortunately, we must close the year on images that may leave us with feelings of sickness and guilt. 2013 saw incredible disasters from natural to man-made. Equally as incredible as the disasters themselves was the human response – a collective campaign to reverse the damages and rebound. What we learn from disasters makes better societies and so to end on this subject means that those affected are not forgotten nor alone.
- Terror in Kenya, Russia, and the U.S., terrorist attacks shook societies in profound ways. In the wealthy shopping mall in Nairobi, Al-Shabab stormed the mall in a sophisticated attack aimed at unsettling the wealthy in Kenya and perhaps retaliating for military attacks against Al-Shabab in Somalia. The Boston Marathon bombings carried out by two Americans in April killed 3 and injured 160 others shocking the city and the world at an event that brings nations together. The city has responded in resounding fashion and resolve, helping to bring people together. In late December, two bombings in Russia supposedly perpetrated by separatist groups from Dagestan or Chechnya have tested confidence in security as the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi approach.
- In April, the building collapse of the Rana Plaza housing thousands of garment workers in Dhaka, Bangladesh killed nearly 1,200 people in one of the worst workplace disasters ever. Workers were horrifyingly locked in, prevented from taking breaks, and working in a building with significant structural flaws and a lack of emergency exits. The disaster prompted global efforts to improve working conditions in Bangladesh and changes in the garment industry (which has been loath to change).
- Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) was one of the largest storms ever recorded with record wind speeds and incredible devastation to the Philippines, Micronesia and Vietnam. To see the city of Tacloban reduced and flattened by a wall of water was heartwrenching and the devastation was ruthless, taking nearly 7,000 lives so far with higher counts unfortunately expected. Though the aid and administration was a bit slow to respond, and some rioting did occur, the international community has teamed up with President Aquino to provide funds, food, and emergency rescue and shelter with incredible force. Both governments and NGOs have worked tirelessly to fundraise, execute plans, and educate the world about the disaster. The work will take years and many people will unfortunately never see their homes or loved ones again, but time and again the world saw themselves in a vulnerable position and responded in solidarity with victims of the typhoon.
Conclusion: Let’s Wrap this up – preferably with a whole grain wrap
Wow! What a year it has been!
2013 will be written about as a pivotal year for many controversial issues such as intelligence, security, and health care. Remember though, that one year does not define these issues – these movements have often been wrestled with by governments for their entire existence. Much can be learned from 2013, but also forgotten.
As we keep an eye on the news, weather, and our personal lives in 2014, let’s keep in mind many of the accomplishments of the global community in 2013. It is helpful to reflect on the preceding year not just for nostalgia, but to also learn from mistakes, errors, bad policy, and issues that could have been prevented.
While the news of 2014 will too often focus on war, crime, disaster, and scandal, don’t forget to use our lessons of 2013 to promote global development, protect the vulnerable, and press for better polity for all.
Cheers to a positive and healthy 2014!!!
Your Faithful Historian,
Eric G. Prileson
Sources and further reads: