Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Who changed history in 2013?

By Frida Ghitis
updated 12:47 PM EST, Tue December 24, 2013
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
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
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
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
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
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
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.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
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.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
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
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
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
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
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.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
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.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
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
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
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
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
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
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
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
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
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?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
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
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT