Thursday, May 5, 2016

Why DO we celebrate Cinco de Mayo?

By now, hopefully, most Americans know that the 16th of September and NOT May 5th is Mexican Independence Day. So what exactly happened on this day and why do we celebrate in the United States? Cinco de Mayo commemorates the victory of the outnumbered and outgunned Mexican army over the French Imperial Army at the Battle of Puebla. Emperor Napoleon III of France (not THE Napoleon) needed a military victory to quell discontent at home, so when the administration of Benito Juárez suspended European debt payments France (along with Spain and Britain) invaded. The Mexican contingency was led by Ignacio Zaragoza, born in what was then Mexican-ruled Goliad, Texas. News of the battle and the role of Zaragoza, "the native son," arrived in Texas as early as 1867 when performers like Onofre Cárdenas from San Ignacio, Texas, sang ballads about both. It was not until the Chicano movement of the 1960s that Cinco de Mayo became widely celebrated in the United States, however. Although the day is technically about the Battle of Puebla, it became a day to celebrate Mexican-American identity. Oh, and the Battle of Puebla only temporarily stopped the French invasion. The French eventually occupied Mexico for three years and installed an Austrian Archduke as Emperor Maximilian of Mexico...and now you know the gist.  



Wednesday, April 6, 2016

What ARE the "Panama Papers?"

Recently, the news has been awash with stories about two things: Donald Trump losing the Wisconsin primary, ensuring a contested Republican convention, and the "Panama Papers." The Panama Papers are 11.5 million files that were leaked from the database of the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca. The unprecedented leak exposed 143 politicians who were using offshore accounts in various tax havens to stash their cash (you know, secretly). Included in this list are close associates of Russia's Vlamir Putin (shocker), former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Argentina's Mauricio Macri, and the Prime Minister of Iceland (who was forced to resign after all this came to light). Commentators were quick to note that almost no Americans were among the people named. Surely it is because we are a more law abiding society. If only...NBC quotes Ana Owens:

"This firm is one of thousands in the world and there are hundreds or thousands just like it in the U.S. If a company in the U.S. can do the exact thing for you as this company in Panama, then you might as well do it right here in the U.S. And its perfectly legal..." 

So who leaked the story? The firm says they were victims of a hacker, but we don't actually know exactly which hackers. So what does this all this hoopla mean? Only that offshore tax havens may no longer have their biggest selling point: secrecy....and now you know the gist. 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Sunni, the Shia, and the Middle East

The Sunni, the Shia, and the Middle East

The Gist


OF COURSE a minority group would live in the oil-rich
parts of the Persian Gulf....
As has been mentioned before on this blog, the Shiite-Sunni divide continues to deepen as Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia and Shiite-majority Iran fight proxy wars all over the Middle East. Sunni's make up the majority of Muslims around the world, but Shiites make up the majority in Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon and Iran (and the province in Saudi Arabia where all of the oil is located). At their core, both sects believe in the same basic tenants: giving to the poor, the belief that there is only one God and that his prophet is Muhammad. The split occurred over a disagreement over who would succeed him. The Sunni's believed that a successor should be chosen by the community, while the Shiite's wanted a member of the Prophet's family to take over. Internal strife soon followed, but it wasn't until Persia/Iran adopted Shia Islam in the 16th century (ironically, Iran had until that point been a center of Sunni learning) that the religious division morphed into one with geopolitical implications. That Shiite's in places like Saudi Arabia (where Shiites allege abuse by Riyadh) and Bahrain (whose Shia-led revolt in 2011 was brutally put down with the help from the Saudi's), are generally poorer, less educated, and marginalized only adds to the problem. However, it needs to be stressed that the Shiite-Sunni "conflict" is only part of what is dividing the Middle East. Perfect example of the complexity of the issue: during the Iran-Iraq War, the Sunni's of Iran didn't back Sunni Saddam Hussein, nor did the majority Shiite in Iraq rise up and back Shiite Ayatollah Khomeini....and now you know the gist. 

Friday, April 17, 2015

The Pope, the Kardashians and the Armenians

The Pope, the Kardashians and the Armenians

The Gist


The 100th anniversary of the mass killings of ethnic Armenians in what was then the Ottoman Empire (Turkey is its modern day successor) is on April 24th.  Sadly, many only heard of this important part of history because Kim Kardashian, her current husband, and her sister visited their ancestral homeland and laid a wreath at a memorial in Yereven this past week. Armenians (and, most recently, Pope Francis) calls the mass killing of 1.5 million of their people a genocide.  In 1915, at the height of the First World War, Armenian men, women, and children were rounded up and forced on death marches across the Iraqi desert without food or water. Turkey denies that there was a systematic effort to exterminate Armenians (this denial is one of the reasons Turkey has not been admitted into the European Union). The Turkish government has gone to great lengths to make sure the word ‘genocide’ is not associated with the deaths of Armenians during the war (on one occasion it used diplomatic pressure to force London’s Tate Gallery to remove the word genocide from an Armenian art exhibit). The leading Holocaust expert, Hebrew University’s Yehuda Bauer, disagrees saying the Armenian Genocide is the closest parallel to the Holocaust in history. Although President Obama promised to recognize the Armenian genocide during his 2008 presidential campaign, that has yet to happen (shockingly, politics seems to have gotten in the way). Armenians across the globe continue to push for recognition of one of the darkest periods of their history….and now you know the gist. 

Friday, April 3, 2015

Christians, Muslims, and Kenya

Christians, Muslims, and Kenya

The Gist


On April 2nd, Al-Shabaab militants stormed a Garissa University in northern Kenya killing 147 students in the deadliest terrorist attack in the country since the 1997 US Embassy bombings. Al-Shabaab is an Al Qaeda affiliated militant group that was founded in Somalia decades ago. This is the same group that killed over sixty people during an attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi. Years of instability in Somalia (watch Black Hawk Down to get an idea) created the perfect breeding ground for the group to gain strength. Kenya has been targeted for two reasons: it is the largest economy in the region and, more importantly, it provided troops to help drive the group out of Somalia. It should also be noted that this part of Kenya is almost overwhelmingly ethnically Somali. The majority of the students at Garissa University were non-Muslims and various news outlets have indicated that the militants targeted Christian students. Some bright spots: Muslim students at morning prayers sheltered their Christian countrymen and this morning Muslim Kenyans marched on the streets of Garissa in solidarity with victims....and now you know the gist. 

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Yemen, Iran, and Saudi Arabia

Yemen, Iran, and Saudi Arabia

The Gist


Saudi Arabia and Iran are playing out their struggle for power through proxy wars all over the Middle East. In Syria, Iran is still backing the Assad regime, while the Saudi's are funding the rebels. In Bahrain (the tiny island that is home to the US's Fifth Fleet), Saudi Arabia recently sent in troops to quash the Iranian-backed Shiite rebels. Most recently, in Yemen, each country is backing opposing sides (Sanaa is in disarray and most of the Saudi-backed central government has fled). Saudi Arabia has long accused Iran of instigating problems in its Shiite-majority, oil-rich Eastern Province. This isn't a Shiite-Sunni conflict however, it is simply a pissing match to see which country can become the undisputed leader in the Middle East. The struggle is also nothing new: in the 60s and 70s Iran, as America's favored child, was seen as the protector of the Persian Gulf; Saudi Arabia was the redheaded stepchild. In Yemen, where the American embassy has already been closed due to the violence, the situation is quickly descending into chaos. With each side blaming the other for the violence in both Yemen and Syria, the power struggle between the Kingdom and the Islamic Republic is not going to end any time in the near future...and now you know the gist. 

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Iran and the United States: Same old same old

Iran and the United States: Same old same old   

The Gist


The self-imposed deadline to reach an agreement with Iran over its nuclear program has been extended one day. The extension is not that big of a deal because the parties (consisting of Britain, China, France, Russia, the US and Germany) have until June 30th to finalize any actual agreement. These talks have sent the Israeli Prime Minster to Washington, which caused even more partisanship on the Hill, and is overall stirring the pot worldwide (any news of the talks sends oil prices either up or down). The United States and its allies want to delay Iran getting the bomb as long as possible and Iran wants relief from the debilitating sanctions (the toughest enacted by President Obama). Neither party will get what it wants because no version of the deal completely takes away Iran's ability to produce the bomb later in time, and all versions of the deal keep an array of sanctions intact. Two very important things are happening, however, that might be more beneficial than any agreement. The United States and Iran are engaging face to face for the first time in close to four decades. More importantly, with the United States willing to come to the table, the Iranian  regime is losing its boogeyman. This is no small thing: the regime points to the United States as the source of all of Iran's problems. With The US no longer a plausible bad guy, the regime (theoretically) might actually be held accountable for its actions...and now you know the gist.