Yemen became the fourth country in the Middle East and Gulf region to undergo a transfer of power as a result of Arab Spring street revolts. But unlike Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, change did not come through violent overthrow: The California-sized nation on the Arabian Peninsula on Feb. 21 elected vice president Abed Rabu Mansour Hadi to replace Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled Yemen for more than 30 years. Hadi's was the only name on the ballot-and Yemenis cheered the opportunity to vote in a brokered election after more than a year of upheaval and violence. But the peaceful transition of power is hardly a turnover: Saleh's son and nephews dominate the military and security forces, and Saleh himself will head the ruling General People's Congress party, which dominates the country's parliament.
Freeze and thaw
The Arctic cold and snow have passed, but a frozen Danube River has halted essential trade over much of Central Europe and is raising fears of flooding should it melt too fast. Already breaking ice has crushed hundreds of boats and barges along the 1,800-mile waterway. Record snowfall and a late January to early February freeze left the river 90 percent frozen, in some places 18 inches thick. While European countries have shifted away from inland waterways as their main shipping route, according to Stratfor, Central Europe, particularly Bulgaria and Romania, remains dependent on the Danube for nearly all freight transport.
The Feb. 17 passage in Congress of a yearlong extension of a payroll tax cut was mostly about avoiding a nasty election year political fight. The defiance displayed last December by fiscal conservatives over a two-month version of the extension did not materialize this time around. Republican leaders insisted that the rank-and-file drop their demand that an equal amount of budget cuts be included with the extension. The $143 billion package allows 160 million Americans to keep in their wallets an extra $80 each month. But the deal will increase the federal deficit by $89.3 billion over the next decade.
Even conservatives who opposed the package did tout the $5 billion in cuts it makes to a prevention fund created by Obamacare. After 2011 was marked by fierce fiscal battles, the payroll deal could signal an early end to significant congressional action on federal spending between now and November. That sets up the possibility of a legislative logjam after the elections. Lawmakers will have to revisit this extension and the Bush-era tax cuts, both of which expire at the end of 2012. Also on the lame duck calendar: votes to increase the debt ceiling again and to finalize the $1.2 trillion spending cuts mandated by the failure of last year's supercommittee on deficit reduction.
Two hundred years after the first American missionaries set off from the New England coast for India, the United States still sends more Christian missionaries abroad than any other country. Brazil is a distant second among missionary-sending countries. In 2010 the United States sent abroad 127,000 of the world's estimated 400,000 missionaries, according to Todd Johnson, director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts. Brazil sent 34,000, Johnson told Reuters news service.
Hall of Fame
When Gary Carter, 57, died from a malignant brain tumor on Feb. 16, he left behind a baseball Hall of Fame record that included 11 years as an All-Star catcher. He also left behind a testament on his Gary Carter Foundation website: "The Baseball Hall of Fame is something every player dreams about, but being a member of God's Hall of Fame is the greatest achievement of all. God offers each of us the gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ. When we accept God's gift of salvation, our name is written in The Book of Life, guaranteeing us a place in heaven forever. I made that decision during spring training in 1973. ... You can become a member of God's Hall of Fame too, by making the same decision today."
One year later
As Japan prepares for the one-year anniversary of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that killed an estimated 19,000 victims, survivors are facing mountainous reminders of the disaster: The Japanese government reported in February that they had cleared only 5 percent of the rubble created by the massive tsunami.
That means that carefully separated piles of debris-everything from clothing to appliances to cars-still line the roadsides and vacant lots of towns along Japan's northeastern coast. Garbage disposal was already a strict business for the small, island nation with limited space when the tsunami created an estimated 23 million tons of debris in the three hardest-hit prefectures alone.
But limited space isn't the only problem: Many residents in towns unaffected by the tsunami are hesitant to accept shipments of rubble for disposal because they fear the debris could be contaminated by radiation from the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant.
In the disaster zone, the piles of debris are creating more than painful reminders: They also slow down rebuilding efforts for the thousands of homeless victims who remain in temporary shelters across the countryside.
Dead end in Pakistan?
What appeared to be a breakthrough in the high-profile 2011 assassination of Pakistan's minister of religious minorities may be a dead end. With the help of Interpol, officers arrested Abid Malik in Dubai and repatriated him to Pakistan on Feb. 13. After a week of questioning, Pakistani police failed to produce any evidence that linked Malik to the minister's death and asked an anti-terrorism court to acquit the suspect. Shahbaz Bhatti, who was the only Christian member of Pakistan's cabinet, was gunned down in his car on March 2, 2011. The 42-year-old Catholic Christian was an outspoken opponent of Pakistan's notorious blasphemy laws. Malik was one of two possible suspects identified by a Karachi clergyman who claimed the two men had quarreled with Bhatti over property rights. Bhatti's support of minorities made him a target among Islamist groups, and he was rarely without his security detail. As violence toward Christians in Pakistan grows, few assailants are prosecuted.
When Xi Jinping, a Communist official set to become China's next president, visited the White House on Feb. 14, President Barack Obama told the smiling leader: "I'm sure the American people welcome you." Outside the front gates, more than 200 protesters chanted and waved signs condemning Chinese policy on everything from Tibet to the country's notorious one-child policy. Some shouted: "Stop lying to the world."
It's a fitting contrast in a complex relationship: U.S. officials feel pressure to embrace China's economic might, while frowning on the country's egregious human-rights record. Talks with Xi remained mostly cordial, but several officials, including Obama, pressed the leader to allow more freedoms for dissidents and religious minorities. Xi-slated to assume leadership of China's Communist Party later this year, and the presidency next year--responded with a familiar refrain: He pointed out that America has human-rights abuses, too.
That didn't satisfy Hudson Institute fellow Michael Horowitz, who called on U.S. leaders to vigorously press for the release of six high-profile dissidents and Christians currently jailed in China: Horowitz showed symbolic solidarity with the prisoners by intentionally undergoing arrest while protesting in an illegal spot on Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House during Xi's visit. Authorities released Horowitz less than two hours later, but Chinese dissidents face a longer road: Some are serving 10-year prison sentences for criticizing the government.
As if to underscore China's determination to make its own decisions, officials denied a visa to the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, Suzan Johnson Cook. White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters on Feb. 16 that the White House raised the issue during Xi's visit, and that Chinese officials are reconsidering granting her permission to travel there.
Corporate tax talk
President Obama on Feb. 22 shook up the nation's debate over taxes by proposing sweeping changes to the corporate tax code. The president's goal: Lower the U.S. corporate tax rate from 35 percent, which is the second-highest in the world, to 28 percent and close loopholes that allow some companies to pay very little. "Our current corporate tax system is outdated, unfair, and inefficient," said Obama in a statement. "It provides tax breaks for moving jobs and profits overseas and hits companies that choose to stay in America with one of the highest tax rates in the world."
While conservatives hailed the idea of cutting rates and closing loopholes, they say that Obama's plan doesn't go far enough. J.D. Foster, a tax analyst at the Heritage Foundation, pointed out that the Obama plan is effectively a tax increase since the closed loopholes more than offset the lowered rates in terms of revenue. "That's not tax reform," wrote Foster. "That's just another tax hike in disguise." GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney favors lowering the corporate rate to 25 percent as part of a broader tax reform plan. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have called for corporate rates of 17.5 percent and 12.5 percent, respectively.
Business groups were encouraged by the various proposals. "It's official: President Obama, congressional leaders of both political parties and the Republican candidates for president all support lowering corporate tax rates," said John Engler, president of the Business Roundtable. "Now let the debate begin."
Honduran officials say they're working to determine the cause of one of the world's worst prison fires in a century: The Feb. 14 blaze at a jail in the town of Comayagua killed at least 350 inmates.
The fire may have begun when an inmate set his mattress on fire. Emergency crews said many prisoners died because firemen couldn't locate guards with keys to the cells. Survivor Antonio Valladaras recounted hearing prisoners cry for help: "Guards, we're burning, we're dying, open the cells."
The disaster highlighted deplorable prison conditions in Honduras, the country with the world's highest murder rate. Last year, a U.S. State Department report said that many Honduran prisoners endure malnutrition, lack of medical care, poor sanitation, rampant gang violence, and severe overcrowding. At least 856 men lived in the Comayagua prison, a jail designed for 500. Only two guards were on duty inside the prison on the night of the fire. Human-rights prosecutor German Enamorado said: "This tragedy could have been averted or at least not been so catastrophic if there had been an emergency system."
Pay up or shut down
South Sudan expelled the head of Chinese-Malaysian oil group Petrodar in a growing crisis over oil receipts with Sudan, the country it seceded from last July. Petrodar, the main oil firm operating in the country, pumped 230,000 barrels per day and exported South Sudanese oil through a Sudan pipeline running north to Port Sudan. But South Sudanese officials shut down oil production in January over Sudan's failure to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in oil receipts owed the South and its imposition of escalating pipeline transit fees. Since the country's breakup last year, Sudan's oil revenues, which used to make up 90 percent of the country's exports and were its main source of hard currency, have largely dried up. The oil crisis plus border disputes that have displaced thousands threaten all-out war between the two countries.