Turns out the revolution is not unstoppable. President Hugo Chavez suffered his first poll defeat ever when Venezuelans voted Dec. 2 against constitutional reforms that would extend his term indefinitely and expand socialism. "I have always voted for Chavez, but he wants a dictatorship like Cuba," one bus driver told the Miami Herald. "I don't want the government to take my small house. It's mine." Chavez's defeat came largely from the persistence of university students, who faced down riot police and tear gas during weeks-long demonstrations and watched tally sheets at polling stations. Chavez tried to amend a constitution he wrote only eight years ago, but some of his supporters in the barrios balked at his new moves, despite incentives like six-hour workdays. Inflation and food shortages have plagued the country recently. Opposition activists hope the victory will help revive their fractured movement.
On Dec. 3 a court sentenced three Muslim extremists to 19, 14, and 10 years in prison, respectively, for beheading three Christian Indonesian schoolgirls in 2005 as they walked to school, Compass News reported. Convictions of Muslims in such cases of religious violence are rare.
The Bush administration on Dec. 6 unveiled a plan to help those who took out adjustable-rate mortgages that they could not afford to keep their homes. The plan would freeze interest rates on many of the mortgages that were scheduled to shift upward over the next few years, and the administration claims it will help 1.2 million homeowners. "We have worked through an evolving process to help minimize the impact of the housing downturn on homeowners, neighborhoods and the U.S. economy," said Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. But, he added, "this is not a silver bullet."
Friends say Robert A. Hawkins of Bellevue, Neb., was quiet and depressed but, they thought, getting better. On Dec. 5, the 19-year-old carried a rifle into an Omaha shopping mall and opened fire, killing eight and wounding five before killing himself. Hawkins, who had been fired from his job at a McDonald's restaurant and broken up with his girlfriend in the days before the rampage, left a suicide note explaining in part his motive: "Now I'll be famous."
A CDC report last week contained a nugget of good news: The U.S. fertility rate is back at replacement level, increasing 2 percent last year to reach 2.1 children per American woman. The bad news, however, is that births to unwed mothers reached an all-time high and a long, downward trend in teen pregnancy began to reverse itself. There were 41.9 births for every 1,000 girls ages 15-19, an increase from 40.5 in 2005.
Opponents of abstinence-based sex education seized on the report: "Congress needs to stop knee-jerk approving abstinence-only funding when it's clear it's not working," U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., told the Associated Press. But advocates of abstinence education pointed out that other forms of sex education remain common and that a reported upswing in condom use among teens has coincided with the increased birth rate and higher rates for many sexually transmitted diseases.
The surprise retirement of Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., led to a reshuffling of the GOP leadership in the Senate last week. Conservative Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., was unopposed in gaining Lott's post as Senate minority whip, while Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., defeated Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., to become chairman of the Senate Republican Conference. The former secretary of education and Tennessee governor defeated Burr by a vote of 31-16.
Both parties' candidates for president, meanwhile, sought to balance voters' Christmas cheer with their own desire to run negative ads in the weeks leading up to earlier-than-usual caucuses and primaries. While campaign aides worried about how the ads would play during the holiday season, others said the negative advertising will mark a shift toward a more substantial campaign based on issues.
Not so fast
The questionable intentions behind Iran's nuclear ambitions have saturated headlines for years, yet last week's U.S. intelligence report claiming the country's nuclear weapons program ended in 2003 gained quick leverage against new sanctions to punish Iran. And some experts say not so fast. Mordechai Kedar, who served in Israel's military intelligence for 25 years and is a researcher for the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv, says Iran still has some explaining to do-and so does Syria: "If Iran really stopped its quest for nuclear weapons, why didn't they open all their sites four years ago to prove it?"
Keder says he is more than certain Iran is continuing its nuclear weapons program, and he claims the country announced only a few weeks ago that it has the capability to launch ballistic missiles from submarines-an indicator of trouble on the horizon.
Some analysts say Syria may be acting as a front for Iran. Although the Israeli government has been silent about its bombing last summer of a Syrian facility, members of Israel's scientific community now admit that the building destroyed was most likely a plant for processing plutonium. And it was identical in shape and size to a North Korean nuclear reactor. Keder said his analysis points to something more than peaceful intentions: "The fact that the Syrians got rid of everything after the bombing is more than suspicious." Keder said the country's intentions are no mystery: "If something looks like a duck and sounds like a duck, you don't have to catch it and check its DNA to make sure it is a duck.