Any list detailing the myriads of individuals responsible for changing history this year would be very long, if not impossible to compile. Choosing only five people to be the five people that changed history in 2013 will inevitably leave out many important contributors and ignore the fact that the many historically significant events that took place this year were brought about by the actions of many nameless people rather than a single, famed person. After all, as Robert Kennedy wrote, “few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total; of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.” Yet, regardless, those people whose names inhabit this list brought important changes in how people see the world, view their governments, and view conflict.
(1) Pope Francis, formerly known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires
Writing for Time Magazine, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York wrote that the new pope was just what the Catholic church needed. “The 100,000 people who were gathered in St. Peter’s Square that chilly evening of March 13, drawn by the legendary white smoke from the chimney atop the Sistine Chapel, wondered what the first words of the 266th successor of St. Peter, Pope Francis, would be. Certainly something profound, theological, cerebral …,” wrote Dolan. However, Pope Francis began his speech with the simple words: “Brothers and sisters, good evening!” And, “with that friendly greeting, this newly elected earthly leader of the planet’s 1.2 billion Catholics began to enchant us. It got even better when, a minute later, he bowed down and asked the throng to bless him,” wrote Dolan.
Words can be very powerful, and the pope’s simple greeting, as impressive as it was to Dolan, were far from the most significant words that he hased utter in the few months since he entered the Vatican. Last month, he made a strong case against neoliberalism. “Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ’thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality,” wrote Pope Francis in an apostolic exhortation published by the Vatican Press. “Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” His words may have little effect on the policies of any head of state or central bank chair, but his appeal for social justice inspired the world.
2) Edward Snowden, former contractor for the National Security Administration
The story goes that Edward Snowden out-spied the spies. First published by the British newspaper The Guardian on June 5, his revelation shown a light on the National Security Agency program known as PRISM, which collects metadata — or data about data — from United States phone companies on millions of calls made by U.S. citizens and foreigners. That leak was followed this month by another disclosure; the agency gathers close to five billion records per day, allowing the NSA to track the locations of cell phones around the world.
In response, major technology companies called for greater controls on surveillance, and the following week, a United States federal court judge ruled that the collection of domestic phone records was probably unconstitutional. However, while the public pressure on Congress to investigate the surveillance programs is growing, opinion regarding the morality of his actions is divided. Plus, no significant policy changes to the NSA surveillance programs have materialized, and the Obama administration has stuck by the status quo even though no evidence suggests the spying has effectively halted terrorists attacks. As for now, it is difficult to determine what the long-term legacy of Snowden’s leaks will be. Yet, it did give Americans an understanding of how their government conducts its surveillance efforts and it launched an international debate over the role of accountability and oversight of covert government operations in democratic societies.
“For me, in terms of personal satisfaction, the mission’s already accomplished. I already won. As soon as journalists were able to work, everything that I had been trying to do was validated. Because, remember, I didn’t want to change society. I wanted to give society a chance to determine if it should change itself,” Snowden explained in a videotaped interview recently sent to the Washington Post.
3) The Democratic Movement in Egypt
As the Arab Spring gained momentum, mass protests broke out in Egypt in January 2011, with millions of demonstrators of various socio-economic and religious backgrounds calling for the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, who had been in office since 1981. Their grievances were focused on legal and political issues, including the lack of free elections or freedom of speech. After his February 2011 resignation, power was turned over to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Despite the optimism that surrounded the revolution, the West became increasingly worried that Islamist groups — including the Muslim Brotherhood — would have access to greater power and influence. What followed Mubarak’s resignation was the election of California-educated, Muslim Brotherhood-backed Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, in June of 2012.
But Morsi failed to build a consensus among the country’s fractious forces. This summer, much of the world was shocked when it was announced that Mohamed Morsi, the acting president of Egypt, had been deposed by the army and was no longer in power. In a country where control of the military represented control over the streets, Morsi had lost too many allies, and his fall from power was rapid. Though many supported the democratically elected Morsi, many found his policies oppressive, saying that they would not have voted for him had they realized the extent of his authoritarian tendencies. In the wake of his removal, violence in Egypt has continued.
Some protestors — including Bassem Mohsen, the 25-year-old activist who was fatally shot in the head during an anti-government demonstration earlier this month — are veterans of protests against Mubarak, the military administration that followed, the Islamist-leaning regime of Morsi, as well as the current interim government, which has its own authoritarian tendencies. Many of those who protested in 2011 have reported that elements in the interim government are “actively seeking vengeance against them,” according to CNN. Yet, a fresh wave of violence broke out this week, and recent events indicate that the hopes for democracy that were first unleashed three years during the Arab Spring may be weakening.
In early September, the United States was facing a tough decision. United States Secretary of State John Kerry had spent days lobbying other nations to support Obama’s call for punitive military strikes against the Syrian government, led by dictatorial President Bashar al-Assad. After nearly three years of civil war, what sparked U.S. motivation for intervention was mounting evidence that Assad employed chemical weapons in an August 21 attack on a Damascus suburb. However, the majority of countries Kerry appealed to were against any action. Russia, being an ally of the Assad regime, was particularly opposed.
“We know that his regime gave orders to prepare for a chemical attack,” said Kerry at an early September news conference. “We know by tracing it physically where the rockets came from and where they landed,” he explained, noting that secret intelligence showed rockets were fired from areas controlled by the Assad regime into territory held by the opposition. “The evidence is powerful, and the question for all of us is what are we going to do about it,” added the Secretary of State.
Then came a question from CBS News correspondent Margaret Brennan. She asked Kerry whether there was any way for the Assad regime to prevent a U.S. attack, and the secretary responded that the Syrian president could “turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over. All of it. Without delay, and allow a full and total accounting before that, but he isn’t about to do it and it can’t be done.” His ultimatum was initial explained away by Jen Psaki, a State Department spokesperson, who said his comments were not meant to be taken literally. Secretary Kerry was making a rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of [Assad] turning over chemical weapons he has denied he used,” Psaki said. “His point was that this brutal dictator with a history of playing fast and loose with the facts can not be trusted to turn over chemical weapons otherwise he would have done so long ago.”
Yet, that ultimatum turned into a solution; based on Kerry’s remark, Russia brokered an agreement between Syria and the United States to destroy the Assad regime’s chemical weapons by June 30, 2014.
5) Hannah Gay, Katherine Luzuriaga, and Deborah Persaud
These three women were responsible for making a breakthrough in the treatment of AIDS, functionally curing a newborn baby of the disease. Gay, a pediatrician at the University of Mississippi; Luzuriaga, an immunologist from the University of Massachusetts; and Persaud, a virologist at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, gave the infant — who contract HIV from his mother — anti-HIV drugs just hours after birth, enabling the baby to successfully fight the virus. Now, at age 2 1/2, the child no longer needs medication and shows no symptoms of the disease.
As Mark Dybul, the executive director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, wrote in a piece for Time:
We scientists are trained to be careful about generalizing about one case. Yet this result gives us more ammunition in the fight against HIV and AIDS. It adds substance to our conviction — not yet proven but heading in the right direction — that we can prevent this disease from infecting newborn babies.
Even more encouraging is the fact that adults could benefit from the same treatment. Research has shown that the administration of anti-HIV drugs soon after infection improves treatment results.
More From Wall St. Cheat Sheet:
- Top 10 International News Stories of 2013
- 10 Most Important Economic Evens of 2013
- Edward Snowden Says His Work Is Complete
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