Presidential primaries unlike any other. Renewed promise for action on climate change. A refugee crisis that nobody seems to have an answer for. Increasingly brazen acts of terrorism around the world. A vote that may forever change Europe’s course.
Through the first half of 2016, the world seemed to spin at an increasingly dizzying pace of change and shocks. And while the events of the past two weeks promise even more twists for the second half of the year, it’s also worth taking stock of some of the top stories that have already marked 2016 and will continue to shape our world in the months and years to come.
From deep, searching post-mortems of some of the year’s major events, to street-level portraits of inequality and its discontents, here are five of the top news articles we’ve come across so far in 2016 – along with related articles from the archives of Pine Tree Republic.
Jan. 9: “A New Cuban Revolution and the Stark Divide between Rich and Poor“, by Stephanie Nolen (Globe and Mail)
“I didn’t go to Cuba planning to report on inequality,” says Globe Latin America beat writer Stephanie Nolen, but the topic surprisingly grabbed a central role in her portrait of the country in early 2016. Nolen speaks with budding entrepreneurs, cleaning ladies, bed and breakfast owners, farmers, and sociologists in an effort to understand the quickly-changing nature of the island. While some of her dispatch repeats familiar tropes about Cuba – the poverty, isolation from the rest of the world, and “stuck-in-time” nature of its rural regions – it also chronicles some of the more recent changes that could be magnified in coming years through the infusion of U.S. dollars.
In particular, the liberalization of the tourism sector and other industries has allowed some Cubans to move beyond subsistence into a middle class-style lifestyle, but it has disproportionately benefited white, male Cubans who have connections to wealthier relatives living abroad. Ironically, one of the last holdouts of communist ideals is now grappling with questions of inequality and privilege, forcing its people to reconcile the principles of the “Revolution” with demands for improved living standards. In fact, the questions they are asking themselves don’t seem too far off from questions currently being asked in industrialized capitalist societies – perhaps signalling a more profound form of reconciliation with the United States.
It’s a debate in Cuban society – what is success? Is it to work more? What is consumerism and what is necessary consumption? It’s natural that the people who lived through the Special Period idealize having ‘things’. But are the most important things in life ‘things?’ “
Our coverage: Re-visit our personal account of Cuba in “En-Amigos: The Opportunities and Perils of a Cuban-U.S. Thaw”
Feb. 18: “Ankara Bombing Underscores Border Fears as Turkey Pushes for Buffer Zone“, by Victor Kotsev (Globe and Mail)
Sadly, this article on a February suicide bombing in Ankara was not remarkable for the event it covered; terrorist attacks in Turkey have become a monthly, if not weekly occurrence. However, it was notable for how it described a volatile tipping point in the evolution of the unrest in the Middle East, precipitated by a Turkish proposal to create a “safe zone” on the Turkish-Syrian border that would have removed the competing armies of several countries from the region.
Ostensibly designed to prevent the displacement of even more refugees, the idea caused consternation among the United States and Russia, who worried about losing influence in the region to ISIS, the Syrian Army, or Turkey itself. Meanwhile, regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Germany, who had just struck a deal with Turkey on stemming the flow of migrants to Europe, backed the proposal for political reasons. Tensions quickly escalated, and Russia even warned of the prospect of “World War III” over competing claims on the region.
While the zone ultimately wasn’t established, the tense days highlighted how complex the situation has become, with global problems as widespread as Europe’s migration crisis, Russia’s expansionist strategy, and the Saudi kingdom’s quest for political legitimacy closely tied to what happens in Turkey. This fascinating and unpredictable country has clearly emerged as the most important pivot point for world geopolitics today.
Turkey.. views the safe zone as a remedy to the slow-motion collapse of tis favoured rebel groups on the ground and its Syria policy, as well as to the prospect of a contiguous Kurdish statelet on its border. Ankara, which faces an escalating Kurdish insurgency at home, believes such a development to be a major threat to the country’s territorial integrity. [IHS analyst Ege] Seckin added that these looming failures would be particularly threatening to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whom he described as ‘increasingly unpredictable.’ “
Our coverage: See our analysis of shifting alliances in the region in “The Middle East Trade Deadline: Turkey, The Kurds, and Signs of a New Balance of Power?”
Feb. 20: “Unstuck: How Can the World’s Vanishing Middle Class Escape an Economic Trap“, by Doug Saunders (Globe and Mail)
If there’s one story that unites societies around the world this year, it has been the general feeling that members of the middle class have been “stuck” in their quest to climb the ladder of social progress. Whether it’s in Euclid, Ohio, or Dongguan in southern China, large swaths of the world’s population – those who tend to vote and mobilize into political movements – feel that they’re actually heading down the social ladder. Globe and Mail international affairs writer Doug Saunders digs into the numbers to discover why: In Cleveland, the cost of living a “middle class” lifestyle has skyrocketed by 30 percent since 2000, while average incomes have fallen by 4.5 percent. Similarly, the cost of a middle-class apartment in industrial China can increase by more than 20 percent in one year, while factory wages remain stagnant. Interestingly, Saunders finds that in both places, similar sets of policies are contributing to keeping the middle class stuck, and points to tangible reforms that could help unblock the social ladder.
It is not just big macroeconomic forces that have caused progress to become stuck: There are specific barriers in housing, education, labour markets, small-business policy, credit access, urban planning, university accessibility and social security that are preventing millions of people from moving forward, and which could be improved with smart policy interventions at the local, regional or national level.”
Our coverage: Re-visit how the concerns of America’s middle class are posing a dilemma for the country’s Democratic Party in “The TPP Trade Deal and the Dilemma of American Liberalism“.
June 18: “The Normalcy in a Tragedy“, by Doug Saunders (Globe and Mail)
In the aftermath of the Orlando shooting, most commentators broke into one of two camps: Either Islamic extremism was to blame, or America’s far too permissive gun culture enabled yet another mass shooting. In this article, Saunders travels to Omar Mateen’s hometown of Fort Pierce, Florida, to probe the environment that shaped his nihilistic worldview. What Saunders discovers is a far more powerful and entrenched influence – the shocking normalcy of violence among young men in communities like Fort Pierce. Detailing an “economic vacuum” in which social services are absent, and children who exhibit any learning difficulties are left behind, Saunders pieces together how Mateen steadily built up a lifestyle of violence and aggressiveness to fit in with his environment (Fort Pierce has the one of the top three crime rates in Florida, which itself is above the U.S. average crime rate). By taking the time to visit a place that was central to Mateen’s formative years, Saunders offers us a much more thorough and convincing explanation of the root causes of this tragedy, beyond the easy media stereotypes.
What is striking is that all Mr. Mateen’s interactions with the school were disciplinary: There was an evident lack of effort, or resources, to put him on a better psychological or behavioural path. Instead, he was allowed to drift into a violent netherworld – a place that may actually have made him fit in better in his northern Fort Pierce neighbourhood, where loud, violent men are a familiar fixture.”
Our Coverage: Almost a year ago to the day, we profiled a series of events that seemed to herald a more inclusive era – including the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in favour of marriage equality. But, as was noted in that article, there is sometime a gap between such a landmark moment and the wider “systematization” of the new era it promises.
June 26: “Britain Rattles Postwar Order“, by Jim Yardley, Alison Smale, Jane Perlez and Ben Hubbard (New York Times)
Last month’s “Brexit” vote was undoubtedly the most talked-about event to mark the first half of 2016. In fact, several foreign affairs commentators have already claimed it as the most significant event in European politics since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In this sweeping article, a quartet of New York Times foreign correspondents piece together the fundamental changes in world order that have come to roost since the financial crisis of 2008-2009. No longer are we living in the days where nation-states respected each other’s sovereign borders, and a U.S.-led system of cooperation around free markets and democracies seemed to rule the world.
In just the past eight years, we have seen a fundamental change in power: As Europe struggled to deal with a debt crisis, Russia openly violated the principle of state sovereignty through its annexation of the Crimea; China flexed its primacy over its Southeast Asian neighbours, and challenged the Western-backed International Monetary Fund with its own international financial bank; nation-states that were imposed by the West on the Middle East finally exploded; and a massive refugee crisis from this region has threatened the stability of the European Union. These are interesting times, and ironically, if anything the “Brexit” vote demonstrated just how interconnected our world has become.
… the problems in the Middle East and Europe share a common origin in the anxieties caused by tectonic shifts in the global economy. But while fear and frustration in the West have shown themselves through democratic elections, brittle Arab states lacked the flexibility to respond.”
Our Coverage: A week before the “Brexit” vote, we profiled the rise of populist movements across the Western industrialized world, and the fundamental changes that are fuelling them.
What other news stories have you found helpful in explaining the world in the first half of 2016? Please share and discuss in the comments below!