Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Who changed history in 2013?

By Frida Ghitis
December 24, 2013 -- Updated 1747 GMT (0147 HKT)
Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected the Roman Catholic Church's 266th Pope on March 13, 2013. The first pontiff from Latin America was also the first to take the name Francis. It was a sign of maverick moves to come. Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected the Roman Catholic Church's 266th Pope on March 13, 2013. The first pontiff from Latin America was also the first to take the name Francis. It was a sign of maverick moves to come.
HIDE CAPTION
Pope Francis' first year
Pope Francis' first year
Pope Francis' first year
Pope Francis' first year
Pope Francis' first year
Pope Francis' first year
Pope Francis' first year
Pope Francis' first year
Pope Francis' first year
Pope Francis' first year
Pope Francis' first year
Pope Francis' first year
Pope Francis' first year
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Frida Ghitis: Some individuals made a huge impact by challenging the status quo
  • Ghitis: If not for Edward Snowden, we wouldn't know about NSA's massive spying
  • She says Pope Francis is challenging the mighty forces of Catholic tradition
  • Ghitis: We are all not just witnesses; we are the protagonists of our own time

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter @FridaGhitis.

(CNN) -- Something was different in 2013. Unlike recent years, when some of the major events were powered by groups and movements -- think revolutions that seemed to materialize out of nowhere, public squares occupied without visible leadership -- this year, it was individuals who created the most unexpected or dramatic events.

Some of this year's crucial stories resulted from the interaction of individuals challenging institutions, organizations or the status quo.

Sometimes they failed miserably. Other times, they succeeded. But mostly they gave a shove to history, trying to knock it onto a different path.

Frida Ghitis
Frida Ghitis

These are my candidates for what defined 2013:

The spies got out-spied

Edward Snowden hadn't yet turned 30 when he threw back the curtain, exposing the astonishing scale of surveillance by the National Security Agency. While the NSA had its sights on other things, a single contractor in its midst triggered an earthquake.

Snowden left his NSA job with hundreds of thousands of documents, revealing how the NSA was gobbling up "meta-data," records of telephone calls and e-mails, even from world leaders and U.S. allies.

The revelations showed an almost omnipotent NSA, capable of learning any of our secrets. And yet, it bared an agency that could be embarrassingly bested by a single man.

To some a hero, to others a traitor, Snowden forced an examination of how far society is willing to allow the government to spy on people's lives. If Snowden didn't act, would we have slipped quickly and easily into an Orwellian state without knowing what our government had been doing?

Possible Amnesty for Edward Snowden

A Pope more concerned with inequality than sexuality

In March, Catholic cardinals gathered in Rome to choose an Argentine priest as the new Pope, the first non-European pope in nearly 1,300 years. Pope Francis has emerged as the most innovative pope in living memory.

CNN Poll: Pope's approval rating sky high

He is challenging the mighty forces of tradition in the Church, wearing a benevolent smile while surely facing murmurs of dissent behind Vatican walls.

The Pope decried the Church's obsession with homosexuality, abortion and birth control, prodding Catholics to fight poverty and inequality instead. He has become an endless source of surprises, phoning his newspaperman to cancel his subscription, paying his hotel bill in person and refusing to move to the papal residence.

Can Pope Francis succeed in bringing lasting changes to one of the world's oldest, most conservative institutions? We will find out.

Struggling Iran pulls a rabbit out of the hat

The dispute with Iran over its nuclear weapons began a new chapter with the surprise election of Hassan Rouhani. The new Iranian President sharply shifted to conciliatory tones, but much doubt remains about whether that will result in real changes. Obama put the odds for a final deal at 50/50.

It is Rouhani's boss, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say in Iran. Nothing happens without his approval, not even a change of tone. It is not clear he has decided to change the goals of Iran's nuclear program.

Almost two decades have passed since the United States and other countries started imposing sanctions on Iran, aiming to prevent what they believe -- and Iran denies -- is a nuclear weapons program.

Iran and the Washington-led world powers made an interim deal to slow some of Iran's progress for six months and roll back some sanctions. That created excitement in some quarters and consternation in others, especially because Iran appears to have found a way to continue enriching uranium even though the United Nations had specifically demanded it stop.

Who wins? Some would say Iran, thanks to Rouhani.

Obama scored self-goal with Obamacare rollout

When it comes to individuals challenging the status quo, the President of the United States is not exactly Everyman, but Barack Obama took on the system and then trampled himself in it.

The story might have been the political dysfunction and the government shutdown that left Americans disgusted with Washington. Obama seemed to be scoring points after standing firm against Republicans. What tripped him most painfully required no intervention from his critics. It was the disastrous rollout of the signature achievement of his presidency, the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.

When Americans stopped shaking their heads at the shutdown, they discovered the Obamacare rollout disaster unfolding. Obama's approval rating took a plunge, made steeper by his initial denial that there was a problem.

When a contrite Obama declared "That's on me," he found little disagreement.

In Syria, Obama fumbled and al-Assad stays in power

When 2012 drew to a close, we knew the suffering of the Syrian people was nowhere near its end. Who would have guessed that by the end of 2013, the Syrian regime would be strengthened?

After calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down in the face of mounting deaths, Obama, along with much of the West, seemed to have no clear idea what to do next. He worried that the opposition fighting against his dictatorship would give rise to a new regime dominated by Islamist extremists. Obama drew a "red line," saying the use of chemical weapons by al-Assad would change his calculus.

Then al-Assad used chemical weapons, and Obama announced he had decided the United States had to intervene. Obama is not a natural risk-taker. When he decided to take action in Syria, he went out on a limb, but quickly he reversed course, afraid to challenge public opinion. He surprised everyone with the announcement that he would await congressional authorization.

The congressional green light looked doubtful when Secretary of State John Kerry off-handedly suggested intervention could be prevented if al-Assad surrendered his chemical weapons. Syria's ally Russia picked up the idea and launched into a diplomatic offensive that saved al-Assad from Western attack and saved Obama from political shame.

As Russia's Vladimir Putin made his victory lap, the Syrian people continued to endure relentless assault by al-Assad and his Lebanese ally, Hezbollah. The death count has continued to climb, and the winter weather is adding to the misery of Syria's civilians.

Putin outwitted Obama, and another dictator gets the last laugh.

As we look back on 2013, it's worth remembering that we are all not just witnesses; we are the protagonists of our time in history. Individuals can change history, for better or worse.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1228 GMT (2028 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT