Tragedies, protests and big changes in politics shaped 2019

Notre Dame Cathedral fire, protests in Hong Kong, a memorial in New Zealand
At left, the steeple of Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral collapses as it is engulfed in flames in April. A protester, center, in Hong Kong in October. At right, a memorial after a mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand.
(Geoffrey van der Hasselt / AFP-Getty Images; Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times; Carl Court / Getty Images)

Terrorist attack in New Zealand

A mourner lays flowers outside the Botanic Gardens in Christchurch.
A mourner lays flowers outside the Botanic Gardens in Christchurch, New Zealand.
(Fiona Goodall / Getty Images)

On March 15, a 28-year-old white nationalist from Australia went on a killing rampage at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, leaving 51 worshipers dead. Witnesses said the attack started in the early afternoon when a man dressed in black entered the Al Noor Mosque and began shooting at terrified Muslims who were attending Friday prayer; 42 people were killed. A second shooting soon followed at the nearby Linwood mosque. Seven more people were killed. The death toll climbed to 51 when two people succumbed to their injuries at the hospital. The unprecedented act of violence was described by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern as a terrorist attack. In the days that followed it became clear that anti-immigrant sentiment was one of the major motives behind the massacre. In the wake of the shooting, New Zealand swiftly announced a ban on all “military-style semiautomatic weapons” and assault rifles. The shooting placed a spotlight on the growing global trend of far-right violence.

This year, good news was overshadowed by a government shutdown, impeachment debates, mass shootings and cheating scandals.

Dec. 19, 2019


Ukraine elects comedian as president, is embroiled in U.S. politics

Volodymyr Zelensky
President-elect Volodymyr Zelensky during his inauguration in Kyiv, Ukraine, on May 20.
(Andrii Nesterenko / EPA-Shutterstock)

In April, Volodymyr Zelensky, a popular comedian who had been in the public spotlight for years, won the presidential election in Ukraine by a landslide. The 41-year-old earned more than 70% of the votes. But more surprises awaited. Less than six months after he became president, Zelensky found himself embroiled in Trump’s impeachment proceedings. That’s because in a phone call with Zelensky in July, Trump urged him to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a possible opponent in the 2020 presidential race. Trump later acknowledged that before the July phone call with Zelensky, he held up congressionally approved military aid to Ukraine, a nation of 44 million people fighting Russian-backed separatists in the east. Those actions culminated in a complaint about Trump filed by an unidentified whistleblower in the intelligence community. At the core of the issue is whether Trump withheld the military aid in order to pressure Zelenksy to influence the 2020 U.S. election. In September, days after Congress learned about the whistleblower complaint, the aid was released.


Notre Dame Cathedral ravaged by fire

April 15 will forever be a somber day for people of France and other Western nations. It was about 6:45 p.m. when a fast-moving blaze engulfed the centuries-old Notre Dame de Paris. Some people shed tears while others gazed at the raging fire in shock. It took more than 400 firefighters and several hours before the orange flames subsided. At first, there was uncertainty surrounding the fate of the 850-year-old monument. Would it collapse? Could it be saved? Most of the roof was destroyed, a 19th century timber spire is gone, and portions of the interior walls were blackened. Officials have said it could take decades to restore the cathedral.


U.S. pulls back from Syria conflict, abandoning Kurds

U.S. military vehicles
U.S. military vehicles in northeast Syria on Oct. 7.
(Associated Press)


In October, about 1,000 U.S. troops stationed in northeastern Syria began withdrawing from key positions near Turkey’s border after President Trump signaled a policy shift to reduce America’s presence in the Middle East. The move effectively gave Turkey the green light to invade Syria, leaving Kurdish fighters — a key U.S. ally in the fight against Islamic State — to fend for themselves. (Turkey argues that the Kurds are linked to separatist movements in its country and are terrorists.) Republicans, including Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, criticized Trump’s decision to pull back on U.S. commitments in the area. Kurdish fighters saw the move as a stab in the back, and whatever hopes they had for an independent state slipped away. Trump’s abrupt decision also had geopolitical consequences; Russian officials saw it as a sign of Moscow’s growing influence in the region. Turkey’s invasion led to dire humanitarian consequences, with hundreds of Syrian Kurds killed and thousands internally displaced.


The detention of Chinese Uighurs

Adil Ahmad and Nuruddin
Adil Ahmad, 15, right, from Yarakan, said his parents were in a reeducation camp and four of his siblings in China are missing, presumed to be in some kind of detention. Nuruddin, left, 16, said his parents were in a camp near their home in Urumchi.
(Umar Farooq / For The Times)

In the last several years, the Chinese government has detained an estimated 1 million Muslims, mostly Uighurs, in camps located in western China’s Xinjiang region. Chinese officials maintain the detention is for national security, citing thousands of “terrorist attacks” that have taken place since the early 1990s. But U.S. intelligence and news reports liken the detention to concentration camps — where the mostly Muslim minorities are raped, beaten, forced to embrace Chinese patriotism and eat pork. The troubling revelations grabbed headlines, with critics saying earlier this year that the silence of President Trump on China’s alleged human rights abuses reflects double standards in U.S. foreign policy. In October, more than 20 countries including the United States called on China to close the camps.


U.S. forces kill Islamic State leader

This image made from a video posted on a militant website April 29 is said to show the leader of Islamic State, Abu Bakr Baghdadi.

Abu Bakr Baghdadi, the leader of the violent Islamic State group, was killed in October when he detonated a suicide vest just as U.S. commandos were closing in on his hideout in northwestern Syria. For years, Baghdadi had been the target of an international manhunt, and Islamic State confirmed his death in a message that was released on the militant group’s Telegram messaging service. His death marked a blow to the group, which at its height controlled large swaths of Iraq and Syria.


Hong Kong protests challenge Beijing rule

Protesters dodge tear gas canisters
Protesters dodge tear gas canisters in Hong Kong.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

It all began with authorities accusing a Hong Kong man of murdering his pregnant girlfriend during a trip to Taiwan. Because the 2018 crime did not occur in Hong Kong, a lawmaker introduced a measure that would create an extradition agreement between the former British colony, Taiwan and mainland China. The fear that this proposal would turn into the unfair arrest of democracy advocates by Chinese authorities led to mass protests in Hong Kong that have persisted for 258 days and counting. Though the measure was pulled, demonstrations calling for democracy forms continue and have led to thousands being imprisoned and at least two deaths. Six months into the protests, city government elections prompted a mass voter turnout and widespread victories for pro-democracy candidates. President Trump for most of the year resisted publicly backing the protesters. But in late November, to the ire of the Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump approved legislation that backed human rights in Hong Kong.


Brexit topples Theresa May, threatens Boris Johnson

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Theresa May
Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson took the role after Theresa May announced her resignation earlier this year.
(Kirsty Wigglesworth / Associated Press; Bern von Jutrczenka / TNS)

It’s been more than three years since a slim majority (52%) of British voters called for their country to exit from the 28-nation European Union. Still, a decision on how and when the split will occur has not been reached. British Prime Minister Theresa May became a prominent political casualty of Brexit. Originally, May and the EU were to come up with a plan that would allow Brexit to occur by March 29. But when lawmakers rejected two of the prime minister’s proposals — one in January and the other in March — she decided to step down and resign. That’s when the new prime minister, Boris Johnson, took over in July. The former foreign secretary vowed to swiftly push through Brexit by Oct. 31 and infamously canceled Parliament to push through a deal by then. The move was dubbed illegal by Britain’s highest court. The Conservative lawmaker expelled party members, including the grandson of Winston Churchill, for not backing his proposals. The chaotic period led to a new general election on Dec. 12 — in which the Conservative Party secured its biggest vote share in more than 30 years. Johnson vowed to carry out Brexit by Jan. 31.


Unrest roils South America as Venezuela sinks, Ecuador and Chile seethe

Venezuelan opposition leader
Venezuelan opposition leader and self-proclaimed acting President Juan Guaidó in Caracas, Venezuela, on Nov. 16.
(Cristian Hernandez / AFP-Getty Images)


Long-standing frustration over neoliberal economic policies coupled with alleged corruption of several political elites resulted in massive and deadly unrest throughout several countries in South America. For years, Venezuela has been rocked by political upheaval and economic chaos. In February, tens of thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets, at the behest of opposition legislator Juan Guaidó, to demand President Nicolas Maduro’s resignation. He refused. Since then, the humanitarian situation has grown even more dire. More than 4 million Venezuelans have fled to neighboring countries to escape hunger and disease. In Chile, the unrest was sparked Oct. 6 by a 4-cent spike in subway fares. Protests ensued with people demanding improvements in healthcare and education. That same month Ecuador was also rocked by deadly large-scale protests that resulted in President Lenín Moreno canceling a disputed austerity package known as Decree 883, which included a sharp increase in fuel costs.


A new president confronts Mexican violence

At least eight people were killed Oct. 17 as Sinaloa cartel gunmen and federal forces fought in Culiacán, Mexico.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador vowed to bring an end to Mexico’s growing violence when he won by a landslide in last year’s election. He aimed to fight crime by demilitarizing public security and addressing the root causes of violence by fighting poverty. But a year into his presidency, the problem continues to vex his administration. Record-high homicide rates and acts of cartel violence plague Mexico; nearly 35,000 homicides are expected by the end of the year, breaking last year’s record of 33,341. A series of high-profile massacres has increased worldwide alarm: In April, 13 people were killed when armed men opened fire at a bar in Minatitlán, Veracruz. In November, gunmen in northern Mexico killed six children and three women of a Mormon fundamentalist group in Mexico’s Sonora state. The government’s failed effort in October to capture the son of drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán raises further questions about the government’s ability to end organized crime.


China marks 70th anniversary of communist rule amid trade war

Parade to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China
Parade participants walk beside a Communist Party float to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
(Kevin Frayer / Getty Images)

In September, celebrations took place to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. The military parade — the biggest the country has ever held — was quite the spectacle, and the drama served to send a message: China has risen as a major military power. The theatrics came amid the U.S. trade war with China. One of the major sticking points has been the Trump administration’s imposition of new tariffs. The idea is to pressure Beijing to roll back its technology ambitions and narrow its trade surplus with the U.S. Beijing wants the punitive tariffs lifted once an agreement takes effect. Washington’s response is that some must remain in order to ensure Beijing fulfills its promises. Plans to sign an interim trade deal in November during a conference in Chile fell through when the conference was canceled because of protests.