Protestors take to the street
“The Year of Protests” may be the best summary for 2019. Hong Kong gained the most attention. The trigger was an extradition bill that critics said violated the one country, two systems pledge that governs the city’s relations with mainland China. Rather than fade, the protests grew into a push for more democratic rule. Pro-democracy candidates swamped pro-China candidates in Hong Kong’s November local elections, setting up a potential confrontation with Beijing in 2020. Protests rattled many other countries as well. Algerians took to the streets in February, eventually forcing president Abdelaziz Bouteflika to resign. The protests continued into the fall as Algerians demanded a complete political overhaul. In April, Sudanese protestors pushed out President Omar Hassan al-Bashir. In October, a transit-fare hike sent Chileans into the streets to protest inequality, while a proposed tax in Lebanon on WhatsApp unleashed a flood of anger. Demonstrations rocked Iraq beginning in October as protestors challenged the country’s governing institutions. In November, the end of fuel subsidies sent Iranians into the street, raising questions about the Iranian regime’s future. Protests also rocked Bolivia, India, Nicaragua, and Russia. For all the talk that authoritarianism is rising, millions of people continue to risk their lives to make governments responsive to their wishes.
“Quid pro quo” may be the phrase of the year. Progressive Democrats began 2019 pushing for President Trump’s impeachment. Despite the April release of the Mueller Report, which did not establish that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia during the 2016 campaign but which explicitly declined to exonerate the president on obstruction-of-justice charges, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi refused to open an impeachment inquiry. That changed when an anonymous whistleblower alleged in August that Trump “is using the power of his office” to pressure Ukraine into investigating Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden and his son. On September 24, Pelosi launched a formal impeachment probe. The next day, the White House released a rough transcript of Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The House voted on October 31 to hold public hearings, which opened in mid-November. On December 18, the House voted along party lines to approve two articles of impeachment. As 2019 ended, it was unclear when Pelosi would send the articles to the Senate, which looked poised to quickly dismiss them.
Tensions flare in the Persian Gulf
War in the Persian Gulf seemed imminent at several points in 2019. In May, four commercial ships were attacked while anchored just outside the Strait of Hormuz, through which about a fifth of the world’s oil passes. The United States accused Iran of being “directly responsible” for the attacks, a charge Iran denied. On June 6, Houthi rebels shot down a US drone in Yemen with help from Iran. Two weeks later, Iran shot down a US drone it said had violated Iranian airspace, a charge the United States denied. On September 14, drones struck two major Saudi oil refineries, temporarily knocking half the country’s oil production offline. Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for the attack, but the Western powers concluded Iran was responsible. President Donald Trump said “US is locked and loaded” to strike but it eventually didn’t happen. Since then US has sent thousands of additional forces and military assets in the region.
Brexit upends British politics
The United Kingdom ended 2019 with clarity about Brexit, but it took a turbulent journey to get there. The year started with the country facing a March 29 deadline for leaving the European Union (EU). Prime Minister Theresa May chose that date but couldn’t persuade the House of Commons to approve the deal she struck with the EU. May was forced to delay Brexit until October 31, and then resigned after the House of Commons voted down her deal three times. New PM Boris Johnson struck a new deal that swapped the backstop for a customs barrier between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. Forced to extend the withdrawal deadline to January 31, 2020, Johnson called a snap election. British voters rewarded him; the Conservatives won their biggest victory in more than three decades. On December 20, Parliament voted overwhelmingly to exit the EU by January 31.
India embraces Hindu nationalism
Where is India headed? That was a popular question as 2019 came to a close. In May, Narendra Modi won a stunning victory in India’s parliamentary elections, as his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) increased its majority amidst the highest voter turnout in Indian history. The size of the victory prompted speculation that Modi would push an aggressive Hindu nationalist agenda. It soon became clear he would. In August, he rescinded the autonomy that Kashmir had enjoyed since independence and that was enshrined in the Indian Constitution. The move was accompanied by a compulsory curfew and blackout, and the arrests of more than 5,000 people in the Muslim-majority region. Modi argued that the new policy would “boost economic development, fight corruption, and end gender caste and religious discrimination” in Kashmir. His critics dismissed that talk as cover for seeking the region’s “Hinduization.” Those complaints gained greater credence in December when the Indian Parliament passed a controversial law creating a path to citizenship for non-Muslim migrants from elsewhere in South Asia. The consequences of India’s potential transformation from a secular state into a Hindu one are hotly debated, especially since Muslims account for 15 percent of the country’s population.
North Korea-US nuclear talks stall
Donald Trump made history on June 30 when he became the first sitting US president to set foot in North Korea. The meeting in the Demilitarized Zone came four months after Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-un met in Hanoi. Neither meeting produced much progress. Trump said he cut the Hanoi Summit short because North Korea “wanted the [US] sanctions lifted in their entirety and we couldn’t do that.” At the June 30 meeting, Trump and Kim agreed to resume nuclear negotiations. It wasn’t until October 1, however, that the two countries agreed on the specifics for talks, and just hours after striking that agreement North Korea launched a ballistic missile in violation of UN resolutions. Negotiators met on October 5, but the talks ended after eight hours with no agreement. In early December, Pyongyang warned the United States would have to decide “what Christmas gift it will select to get.” As 2019 came to a close, no progress had been made in containing, let alone dismantling, North Korean’s nuclear weapons program. The prospects for 2020 aren’t any better.
The Amazon fire and climate protests
For decades, loggers and farmers have been clearing the Amazon rainforest and setting what’s left on fire in order to grow crops and graze cattle. The 80,000 fires set in 2019 were the most in a decade, and they burned an area about the size of New Jersey. As the immensity of the fires became clear, critics blamed the policies of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro for allowing, if not encouraging, the wanton destruction of the rainforest, considered the lungs of the planet. There were also a number of wildfires in US, Europe, Asia and Australia. The extreme incidents helped to galvanize opinions, specially among the youth. Schoolchildren’s strike across the globe, climate groups’ protests, dire warnings from scientists somewhat made climate emergency sound like an emergency in 2019.
In an event that threatened wider military conflict between the two nuclear-armed neighbours, suspected Pakistan sponsored militants killed 46 Indian para-military troops in Pulwama district of Jammu & Kashmir on February 14. After days of nerve-racking tensions, on February 26, India launched pre-dawn airstrikes in Pakistan’s Balakot, destroying a terror camp and eliminating several terror operatives. Pakistan denied the claims. However, in retaliation, on the next day, Pakistan sent across the border its F-16 fighter jets ensuring a dogfight. In this operation, however, an Indian fighter pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, was captured by Pakistani forces and released after several rounds of negotiations, easing tensions.