The 100th Anniversary of the U.S. Invasion of Haiti

History has not been kind to Haiti. As the world’s first black republic, and the only nation founded by a successful slave revolt, it was regarded with contempt by world powers from the very beginning. From France’s onerous debts, to the U.S.’ repeated interference in domestic affairs, this poor yet proud nation has endured countless threats to sovereignty and prosperity — and little recognition of it.

It would likely surprise most Americans to know that their small Caribbean neighbor, rarely more than a footnote in public consciousness let alone government policy, has been repeatedly invaded, occupied, or otherwise meddled with by the U.S. since the early 20th century. In fact, as the Washington Post reminds us, it was 100 years ago today that President Woodrow Wilson — who had then-recently championed liberal, democratic values, such as self-determination, in Europe initiated an almost two-decade-long occupation of Haiti.

Perhaps to its credit, the U.S. State Department’s Office of the Historian is pretty candid about America’s longstanding interests in the country, and the true motivations of its intervention. Continue reading

U.N. Finds Vast Decline in Global Poverty, Though Big Challenges Remain

Last Monday, the United Nations published details from its final report on the results of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a set of targets established 15 years ago to improve the lives of the poor. The eight goals covered every dimension of extreme poverty, from eradicating hunger and child mortality, to improving environmental sustainability and gender equality.

As the New York Times reported, the results were mixed but nonetheless encouraging.

Dire poverty has dropped sharply, and just as many girls as boys are now enrolled in primary schools around the world. Simple measures like installing bed nets have prevented some six million deaths from malaria. But nearly one billion people still defecate in the open, endangering the health of many others.

“The report confirms that the global efforts to achieve the goals have saved millions of lives and improved conditions for millions more around the world”, the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said Monday as he released the report in Oslo.

In fact, though, how much of those gains can be attributed to the goals is unknown. The sharp reductions in extreme poverty are due largely to the economic strides made by one big country, China. Likewise, some of the biggest shortfalls can be attributed to a handful of countries that remain very far behind. In India, for example, an estimated 600 million people defecate in the open, heightening the risk of serious disease, especially for children.

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Income Inequality Around the World

Or to be more precise, among the 34 countries that make up the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a club of mostly industrialized nations (including many of the world’s largest and most developed economies). Its recent report on inequality shows growing and unprecedented disparity of income across the board, albeit at different rates and levels depending on the country.

Mexico, Chile, the United States, and Turkey fare the worst, while Denmark, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, and Finland perform the best. The chart below displays the results, courtesy of Business Insider

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The Countries That Love and Hate America the Most

A country as big, powerful, and globally consequential as the United States is sure to attract a lot of attention and scrutiny. For better or worse, America has had considerable impact on world events for at least the past century — if not from its very foundation — and the mixed legacy of U.S. foreign policy, culture, and ideals continues to impact millions of people across the globe to this day.

So it is not surprising that the latest results from the Pew Research Center’s study on America’s global reputation are so mixed. The reputable polling group asked respondents in 39 different countries whether or not they had a favorable or unfavorable opinion of the U.S. The results, courtesy of this graph by Business Insider, might surprise you. Continue reading

The Countries With the Greatest Well-Being

According to the most recent Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, Panama once again takes the top spot in the number of people reporting high personal well-being, followed by Costa Rica in second place and Puerto Rico in third.

In fourth place was Switzerland, the top European country, which along with Austria (in ninth place) was the only non-Latin American country in the top ten.

The United States came in at No. 23, one spot behind Israel and one ahead of Canada.

This is the second time the report has been compiled (see the first one’s results here). It looks at how more than 146,000 randomly selected adults, spanning 145 countries and areas, respond to questions about five areas related to their well-being: purpose; social; financial; community; and physical. Here are the specific questions, courtesy of NPR. Continue reading

To Understand Russia, Read Its Literature

If you are both a Russophile and lover of literature, you will appreciate James Stavridis’ piece for Foreign Policy,  which recommends several Russian books across the last 150 years that offer a look into the nation’s soul, psyche, and condition. Whether or not you care to learn more about this enigmatic — and still highly consequential culture — the following literary works are well worth considering for their value alone.

Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol

It is the blackest of black humor, a story in which a mysterious businessman moves through the Russian countryside “buying up souls” (i.e., taking away a tax burden from the estate owners). It is an absurdist construct, and the novel functions as a satiric portrait of the dysfunctional Russian landowner society that eventually fell in the 1917 revolution. It tells us that Russians see the world as somewhat absurd and contradictory, and hardly a place where overarching humanist value systems triumph. For a nation whose leader struts around the world stage without a shirt on, plays with a pet Siberian tiger, and flies in a motorized mini-plane chasing white storks, there is a certain appeal to the absurd. It is a novel that evokes the most skeptical and cynical in the human condition and appropriately ends abruptly in mid-sentence — a signal of the inability to predict a coherent future.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

…shows us how the Russians think about their ability to fight, and illuminates the deep patriotism that fuels today’s nationalist tendencies. Tolstoy makes clear the largest landmass under national sovereignty in the world is literally unconquerable, even by the brilliance of Napoleon. Moscow might burn, but the Russian military will never give up. Tolstoy also debunks the 19th-century theory of world events once-called “the great man” approach, arguing instead that events are driven by the collision of thousands of small events coming together. And when it comes to leaders, Russians throw the cosmic dice: One time they get an Ivan the Terrible, the next a Peter the Great. They know that eventually the dice will roll again, and a new leader will emerge. The bad news is that what comes after Putin may be even worse, given the growing xenophobia and ultra-nationalism. As we look at Putin’s dominance, we should remember that the dice will roll again. The Russians do.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (my personal favorite)

…a tale that captures the Russian sensibility perfectly: A deeply troubled protagonist chooses to kill, but then is haunted by guilt and — encouraged by the good people around him — eventually confesses. He is then purified and ultimately achieves redemption. The central character, Raskolnikov, is a largely sympathetic figure, full of tragic contradictions, who strays into a brutal crime but is redeemed through punishment and faith. While it is hard to see Putin as a Raskolnikov, perhaps there is a touch of that pattern of redemption in the life and times of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oligarch turned political opposition leader, who was jailed and then finally released. The next chapter of his journey will be an interesting one. Russians have a deep belief in their own goodness and justness, recognizing mistakes will be made along the road to righteousness. They believe in both crime and punishment in a very literal sense.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Think the Russians will crack under sanctions? [The] protagonist, a convict in a Siberian gulag, finds a hundred ways to scrape through the day, dealing with the petty corruption, laughing at the predicaments, occasionally reveling in the harsh conditions of his imprisonment, and powerfully exhibiting the ability to overcome adversity. Like Denisovich, Russians will find an ironic pleasure in overcoming the pain of sanctions, and we should not put too much faith in our ability to break their will through imposing economic hardships.

One Soldier’s War by Arkady Babchenko.

It’s a foot soldier’s memoir set in Chechnya during the height of the war there in the 1990s waged by the Russian conscript military against the rebellious population. This is counterinsurgency turned upside down — the Russians aren’t trying to win the hearts and minds; they are quite content with putting a bullet into each. The book is a good view into the mind of any conscripted force sent to Ukraine — which explains why it is the Spetsnaz special forces, not regular troops, who are operating across the border. There is much to learn here about the Russian military’s operational approach: The Russians have learned from their mistakes in Chechnya and in Afghanistan, and the new so-called hybrid war is full of lessons they took away. In Ukraine, the use of social media, strategic communications, humanitarian convoys, insurgent techniques, and cyber dominance all come from the Chechnya experience.

Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart

…To understand the view of the Russian émigré, the brilliant Russian-American novelist … captures the post-Soviet space better than any book of nonfiction. Set in Moscow and a thinly disguised Azerbaijan (a former republic of the USSR, in case you forgot), it serves up a portrait of Russian “capitalism” with a huge dose of black humor. It echoes Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, a magical realist novel written in the 1930s, in its evocation of the Russians’ ability to exist quite happily in a world where everything is half a beat off the music.

While these represent a mere fraction of the vast body of Russian literature out there (indeed, the country is the fourth-largest publisher of books in the world), they are a great way to understand what shapes one of history’s most significant civilizations. The literature, art, and creative expression of any culture can go a long way in helping us bridge the gap between different languages, perspectives, and conditions.

NASA Confirms Severe Global Water Shortage

Years of documentation and research have shown that many of the world’s underground aquifers — the leading source of fresh water for hundreds of millions of people — have been depleted, in some instances well below naturally recoverable rates. Now, recent data from a NASA satellite show the full extent of this problem on a global scale, offering the first detailed assessment of its kind. As the following chart from the Washington Post vividly shows, the outlook is dire.

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IMF Study Finds Trickle-Down Economics Does Not Work

The notion that as the rich get richer, the benefits ultimately  “trickle down” to the rest of society has been thoroughly debunked since it first emerged by in the 1980s. Even though no amount of evidence seems enough to kill off these pernicious and invalidated idea, it never hurts to add more ammunition to the argument — especially when it comes from an otherwise centrist and mainstream institution like the International Monetary Fund (IMF).  Continue reading

A Sobering Visualization of WWII Fatalities

It is widely known that the Second World War is one of the deadliest and most destructive conflicts in history, claiming the lives of 50 million to 85 million people. Given such an unfathomably large number of deaths (not to mention the many tens of millions maimed and/or psychologically scarred) it is difficult to truly comprehend the staggering level of human suffering that can be expressed only in cold, dispassionate numbers.

In light of this, filmmaker Neil Halloran has created a short film that presents a stark and highly detailed breakdown of all civilian and military deaths in the war, including those attributed to the Holocaust. Deaths are categorized by country, theater of war, front, and cause. Each human figure shown in the tally represents 1,000 individuals — a 1,000 personalities with hopes, dreams, life experiences, and loved ones. It is incredible to behold.

Vox.com, my source for the video, summarizes the emotional impact of this presentation perfectly:

It’s the starkness of Halloran’s video that really hits home. He simply represents the total death tally with a series of human figures, each standing in for 1000 deaths. So when the gigantic column of dead Soviet soldiers flies by, dwarfing every other combatant, you get a chilling sense of just how immense the conflict on the Eastern Front was. And when you see the column of Jews murdered by the Nazis, broken down by where and how they were killed, you understand the true enormity of the Final Solution’s apparatus of murder.

It’s an extraordinary film. And once you’ve watched it, you’ll appreciate just how lucky we are to be living through the most peaceful time in human history.

Though that last assertion remains disputed, there is no doubt that the Second World War stands out as one of the most calamitous and consequential conflict in human history, and one that is thankfully unlikely to occur again (or so one would hope).

The 26th Anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Protests

On this day in 1989, an over month-long, mostly peaceful protest involving workers, political reformers, and pro-democracy students — centered on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, but later spreading across hundreds of cities around the country — was crashed by government security forces. Continue reading