Sunday, October 19, 2014

Somalia May be rising from the ashes (SCARR Article)

When one hears “Somalia”, people usually think of the movie “Black Hawk Down”, pirates, countless sides of violence and strife, and Islamic fundamentalism. The country still suffers from poverty and violence in other areas, but the capital of Mogadishu, once a war-torn shell of a city plagued by hatred and arbitrary blood-spilling, is starting to rise from its painful past.  Earlier this month, a new airport and seaport started construction with help and investment from Turkey. The Somali government started their first postal service in twenty years, devising a postal code system for the East African nation-the first they've ever had. 
To an outsider, this probably sounds extremely basic, almost primitive. After twenty years of religious and clan-instigated conflict, Somalia has nowhere to go but up. The Civil War and Islamic fundamentalism ravaged the already impoverished country into anarchy and utter disarray. The economy wasn’t just hurt, it was wiped out. What was left of Mogadishu was terrorized by wild-eyed groups of thugs with Kalashnikovs slung over their backs. These are basic infrastructural needs, but they are vital to functioning society, and are the first step to developing a country that desperately needs it.

Somalis that have moved elsewhere are also returning to their homeland to help, assisting new businesses and recruiting skilled laborers for further development. The national currency, the shilling, has been regaining its value, shooting up from an exchange rate of 15,000 shillings to the dollar in May of 2013 to just over 1,000 to the dollar in March of 2014. Right now it’s dipped under 800.  This is excellent news for a people desiring to invest-it will inspire confidence, and for the first time, Somalis in Mogadishu can withdraw shillings from an ATM in their capital city. Progress is being made in resolving the territorial dispute with Puntland with international observers standing by.

Some credit is definitely due to the work of Somalia’s President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who was elected in September 2012, and promised strong anti-corruption measures. However, security isn’t perfect; only two days ago a bomb went off near a popular cafe killing six, and the UN has condemned what they described as a possible escalating crisis. Al-Shabaab is a very real threat, and the government still lacks strong authority outside the capital. The country is severely underdeveloped, with a GDP per capita of $600, and the northern section of the country considers itself independent. Somalia’s got a very long way to go. But every journey begins with one step. 

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Tunisia Tests Democracy

In early 2011, a fruit vendor in Tunisia lit himself ablaze, provoking mass anger in the small North African state. This act of desperation started the Arab Spring, which ended the regimes of dictators like Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. In Tunisia, Former President Ben Ali is living out his days in exile. But Tunisia has a claim most of the other Arab Spring nations can attest to. They’ve weathered the storm well and seem to be on an imperfect but determined path to true representative democracy, while Libya is a lawless mess, and Egypt seems to have come full circle by electing Abdel Fateh el-Sisi
Tunisia faces an important test this year with Presidential and legislative elections quickly approaching. Scuffles between Islamists and liberals are still a very real threat and the country is still plagued by terrorist attacks and assassinations. Elections are scheduled for October and November of this year. Four parties, along with a sizable contingent of independents, make up Tunisia’s parliament. The Islamist party Ennahda is the largest party in Tunisia’s constituent assembly, but the interim president is a liberal nationalist who has worked as a human rights activist.

Islamism could be a very real threat to democracy in Tunisia, especially with the problems in next-door Libya and the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Tunisia’s economy is still sputteringfrom the revolution-budget deficit that has risen sharply since the revolution. However, if Tunisia is able to have a peaceful and free election, their economy will likely get a boost. The country also has a considerable tourism industry due to the ancient city of Carthage, Roman ruins, and affordability compared to Europe. While Tunisia does depend on oil, it is far less attached to black gold than other Arab nations, which is rare. Some within Tunisia have complained that none of the present parties have a solution to the economy, but perhaps a clean election will be the boost the country needs.

On September 30, the news broke that 27 candidates will be running in Tunisia’s presidential election, and that the polls are currently led by Beji Caid Essebsi, an elderly secular candidate with background in the previous regime who wants to lead Tunisia in a step-by-step fashion. He is quoted in the New York Times, claiming the transition will be a slow one: “When someone is hungry asking for food, you only give him what he needs...You don’t give him more, or else he might die, so we offer a step-by-step approach.”

Essebsi has a reputation of trying to change the old dictatorship from within but has dealt with protesters in questionable ways as interim prime minister, but one could wager that it’s not who wins, but the process of the election that matters. If Tunisia pulls these elections off fairly, cleanly, and quickly, whoever wins could gain legitimacy among the electorate even if they voted for another.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Zimmermann's no-no: A first-hand account

"How can you not get romantic about baseball?" Brad Pitt as Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane in Moneyball

On Sunday afternoon, at around 1:00 pm in row F of section 222 of Nationals Park, a Reds fan, a Yankees fan, and two Red Sox fans sat down, stadium grub in hand, to see the final game of the season between the Washington Nationals and the Miami Marlins. It was a sunny, breezy day in the Nation's capital, a perfect way to end the summer.
None of us were expecting what happened next.
As I stood in line to buy a lemonade in the second inning, I heard the crack of the bat, followed by that familiar hopeful "OHHHH" of 35,000 hopeful fans who knew that Ian Desmond had put good wood on the ball. I quickly ducked out of line to see the ball sail into the Marlins' bullpen. 1-0 Nationals.
A few innings passed by. As I sat there lounging in the right field nosebleeds shooting the breeze with my friends, I looked at the scoreboard.
I leaned over "Hey, J.R., Zimmermann's got a no-hitter through 5." I observed.
"Yeah, he's doing really well so far. Very efficient!" my friend replied.
Two more innings passed, and a debate broke out between us whether Zimmermann would be taken out with a no-hitter going on 6 2/3 innings.
"It's only swing of the bat and it's all over. Alvarez has pitched very well too."
"They need to rest him for the playoffs."
"I don't know man...they can have Strasburg and Gonzalez pitch, Zim can come in for Game 3..."
"His pitch count's really good, he doesn't look tired at all."
"Has he walked anyone?" "Yeah, two innings ago, and he had that wild pitch too."
Every recorded out was becoming more and more exciting. An intangible buzz could be felt among the fans.
"This has really been an awesome performance by Zimmermann..."
So began the 8th inning. Zimmermann recorded two strikes on the batter, and I noticed a few people standing and cheering. A dull roar of cheering followed. Every out it became louder and louder.
I noticed my heart was beating faster and faster.
Up stepped Ryan Yelich. No runs, no hits, no errors. Only two baserunners. Ten strikeouts for Zimmermann. All of Nationals Park on its feet, the loudest I've ever heard it.
Ball. Outside.
The next few minutes felt like an eternity. Zimmermann got the sign. Into the set. The two-one.
It looked good, and Yelich swung. Fly ball.
"OH NO". I thought. It wasn't enough for a home run but it was heading towards the gap in left-center. Steven Souza was running...running...he was close...
"Could he-"
Souza lunged.
The ball found his glove. Souza flopped to the ground, and tumbled over. But the ball stayed put. It was over.
Thirty-five thousand exhilarated fans shot their arms into the sky in victory. I promptly high-fived and hugged everyone I could reach.  I just witnessed a feat that has happened less than 300 times in Major League Baseball since the 19th Century. Live. An enormous toothy smile had formed across my face, where it stayed for the next half-hour at least.  I felt like I was in love. And with baseball, let's face it, I am definitely in love.

As far as sports go, baseball was my first love. Growing up in the Boston area probably had a lot to do with that. Over the years I did find other, hockey, soccer, even college basketball. The Olympic Games.
But through it all, baseball has been a constant. I always try to catch the playoffs, regardless if one of my teams made it. There's nothing more perfect than a hot summer day at the ballpark with a hot dog and a beer. I'll remember this game for the rest of my life, and it will become a story I'll tell and re-tell for years to come. Thanks, Nats.