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Last week, I wrote about ten Americans who died in 2014 who helped shape U.S. foreign policy during their lifetimes. Below are ten world figures who died in 2014. Each made a mark on history. Some were heroes; some were villains. And for some, whether they were hero or villain lies in the eye of the beholder.
Jean-Claude Duvalier (b. 1951) was the ruthless Haitian president ousted in a 1986 coup. Duvalier became “president for life” in 1971 at the age of nineteen when his father, President Francois Duvalier—or “Papa Doc”—suddenly died. “Baby Doc’s” rule was less brutal than his father’s, but that’s not saying much. He used his father’s militia, the Tonton Macoutes, to intimidate or eliminate his opponents. As many as 30,000 Haitians died as the country’s three main prisons became known as the “triangle of death.” While Haiti was (and is) the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Baby Doc lived lavishly; he stole as much as $800 million from the Haitian treasury. A severe economic crisis triggered the 1986 uprising that sent him into exile. He returned to Haiti 2011, having squandered his wealth during his twenty-five years in France. He claimed he wanted to help rebuild Haiti after it suffered a devastating earthquake; he did nothing of consequence to that end. Despite efforts by human rights groups, Duvalier was never brought to justice for his crimes. He lived well until his death this October.
Nadine Gordimer (b. 1923) was the Nobel Prize–winning South African writer whose novels and short stories educated the world about the reality of apartheid. Gordimer, the daughter of Jewish immigrants to South Africa, began writing young; she published her first short story when she was just fifteen. Her writing turned her into a forceful critic of apartheid. She joined the African National Congress and befriended Nelson Mandela. The South African government banned several of her works because of their anti-apartheid themes. Her 1979 book Burger’s Daughter, a story about “the problems, the humanity, the ruthlessness and the cost of political involvement,” was smuggled to Mandela while he was imprisoned at Robben Island. He subsequently wrote Gordimer “a letter of deep, understanding acceptance about the book.” Gordimer won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991. She continued to write about apartheid even after it was abolished in 1994. (If you’re looking to read some of Gordimer’s work, the Guardian has her five must-read books.)
Wojciech Jaruzelski (b. 1923) was the Polish leader who led the crackdown on the Solidarity movement in 1981 and eight years later became Poland’s last communist leader. Jaruzelski was born in Poland but fled to Lithuania with his family when Hitler invaded in 1939. In 1941, the Soviets sent him to Siberia. The next year he joined a Polish section of the Soviet army so he could fight against Germany. He remained in what became the Polish army after the war and rose quickly through the ranks, becoming the country’s youngest general at the age of thirty-three. A member of the Communist Party, he entered the Polish parliament in 1961 and became defense minister in 1968. When Solidarity’s prominence became unacceptable to Moscow, Jaruzelski declared martial law on December 13, 1981 and sent tanks into Warsaw to quell protests. He later claimed he took this step to prevent Moscow from intervening on its own, as it had done before in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Jaruzelski gradually relaxed martial law, and in 1989 he voluntarily stepped down from power. That move paved the way for the election of Solidarity leader Lech Walesa as Poland’s first post-Communist president. Poles are divided over Jaruzelski’s legacy. Some believe he was a hero for preventing a Soviet crackdown and leading the country out of communism; others think he put loyalty to the Soviet Union above his own country. The debate over his legacy will likely continue for a long time.
Sheik Umar Khan (b. 1975) was a doctor from Sierra Leone who died at the age of thirty-nine after contracting Ebola while treating victims of the region’s Ebola outbreak. Khan studied at the College of Medicine and Allied Health Sciences in Sierra Leone. He later worked for the Sierra Leone Ministry of Health and Sanitation, served as the head of Kenema Government Hospital’s Lassa fever program, consulted for the UN Mission in Sierra Leone, and taught as a university lecturer. Because Lassa fever is similar to Ebola, Khan was called on to help stem the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. He understood the risks. He treated more than one hundred patients between April and July. When he became infected, only about seven hundred people had died of Ebola. Now, that number exceeds 7,500. That figure includes about 270 health care workers, all of whom had the courage and selflessness to help confront the deadly virus. Khan’s death prompted a debate over whether he should have been treated with an experimental drug that might have saved his life. The drug was later used on other health-care workers who became infected with Ebola and may have saved their lives.
Eroni Kumana (b. 1918) was a fisherman and canoe maker on the island of Rannoga in the Solomon Islands who saved John. F. Kennedy’s life. In 1943, Kumana was in his canoe fulfilling his Coastwatcher duties for the Australian government when he and his fellow islander Buiku Gasacame across a U.S. Navy crew struggling to survive on a deserted island after a Japanese destroyer sank their patrol boat, the PT-109. Kumana and Gasa built a fire and gave the men food and water. They then went a step further. They took a message that the PT boat’s captain, John Kennedy, had written on a coconut shell and paddled thirty-five miles to an Australian naval base. (Kennedy used the coconut shell as a paperweight on his desk in the Oval Office). Kennedy and his men were then rescued. Kumana and Gasa helped the Americans at great peril to themselves; the Japanese occupied Rannoga at the time and likely would have executed them had they been caught. And neither man knew that they were saving the life of a future president of the United States. Kumana never saw Kennedy again; he was invited to Kennedy’s presidential inauguration but was unable to attend. Kumana lived in the Solomon Islands his entire life. An American living there described him as “the most animated, energetic little guy…even at 93 years old.”
Hiroo Onoda (b. 1922) was a second lieutenant in the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II who continued fighting long after the war ended for everyone else. As the war was in its final stages, Onoda and three of his fellow soldiers hid in the jungle on the island of Lubang in the Philippines. The last order they had received had directed them not surrender, so they didn’t. Not willing to believe that Japan would ever surrender, Onoda followed his orders for twenty-nine years—even after one of his comrades had surrendered and the other two had been killed. Finally, in 1974, Onoda’s brother and his former commanding officer persuaded him to surrender. Still wearing his tattered uniform, he went to Manila to present his sword to Ferdinand Marcos, the president of the Philippines, who then pardoned him for the crimes he had committed in the jungle. Onoda was greeted upon his return to Japan as a hero. He wrote a book about his experience. However, he felt out-of-place in his homeland. He moved to Brazil, where he met his wife. He eventually moved back to Japan and opened Onoda Nature School, a camp to teach survival skills to Japanese youth.
Ian Paisley (b. 1926) was the longtime leader of Protestants in Northern Ireland who favored union with Britain. Born and raised in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, Paisley studied to become a Presbyterian minister but became dissatisfied with the church and founded the fundamentalist Free Presbyterian Church. He passionately opposed uniting Ulster with the rest of Ireland. In 1965, he threw snowballs at the Irish prime minister to protest what he feared was movement toward unification. When the Troubles, a thirty-year conflict over whether Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom, erupted in 1968, Paisley established himself as a leader of pro-union forces in Ulster. He consistently denounced any potential concessions to the Republic of Ireland or to Catholics in Northern Ireland, and he frequently did so using bitter, divisive, and inflammatory language. He was elected to the British House of Commons in 1970, and he founded the Democratic Unionist Party the next year. In 1988 as a member of European Parliament, he called the pope the antichrist. Paisley vehemently opposed the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which helped end the Troubles. Yet when he was elected first minister of Northern Ireland in 2007, he surprised the world by reaching a power-sharing agreement with his arch-enemy, Gerry Adams, the leader of the Sinn Féin Party. Most Protestant unionists viewed Paisley as a great leader; most everyone else saw him as a dangerous demagogue whose hatreds fueled the divisions and violence that drove the Troubles.
Michael Sata (b. 1937) was the president of Zambia. He came from humble beginnings, studied to be a priest, and tried many different jobs as a young man, including police officer, taxidermist, pilot, and even a porter in London’s Victoria station. He participated in Zambia’s struggle for independence from Great Britain. After independence, he rose through the ranks of the United National Independence Party (UNIP), which was headed by Zambia’s first president, Kenneth Kaunda. Sata eventually became disillusioned with Kaunda’s dictatorial ways, and in 1991 he joined the opposition Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD). He eventually fell out with the MMD, and in 2001 he founded a new opposition party, the Patriotic Front. It took Sata three tries to win the Zambian presidency. He accomplished that feat in 2011, knocking the MMD out of power for the first time in two decades. Sata won the presidency in part because of his stinging criticism of Chinese involvement in Zambia’s copper mining industry. (Sata was known as “King Cobra” for his “abrasive manner and a sharp tongue.”) Once in office, his anti-Chinese attitude at times scared investors. Nonetheless, the Zambian economy grew under his leadership. Sata was succeeded in office by his vice president, Guy Scott, who became the first white president in the region since South African President F.W. de Klerk left office in 1994. Scott’s position is temporary. Zambia has elections scheduled for January 20.
Ariel Sharon (b. 1928) was a controversial Israeli general who as prime minister surprised both his critics and supporters by ordering the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. Sharon was born to Russian Jewish immigrants and raised on a farm near Tel Aviv. He distinguished himself in Israel’s 1948 war of independence. He subsequently formed an elite commando team, Unit 101, which he led on an infamous 1953 reprisal raid on Qibya, Jordan that killed sixty-nine Jordanian civilians. The UN Security Council condemned the attack, which the Israeli government denied its forces had carried out. Sharon played a role in all of Israel’s subsequent major conflicts until his stroke, including the 1956 Suez War and the 1967 Six-Day War. As defense minister in 1982, he orchestrated the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which failed to produce the quick victory he predicted and which was halted under intense pressure from the Reagan administration. A massacre at the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Beirut by Israel’s Christian Lebanese militia allies in the wake of the war prompted international outrage; an official Israeli inquiry blamed Sharon for not anticipating the massacre and called for his resignation. He was reassigned to another Cabinet post, but remained an influential figure in Israeli politics. He was elected prime minister in 2001, in part on his promise to halt the second Palestinian intifada, an uprising that his own visit to Temple Mount had sparked. Despite having previously been a staunch supporter of Israel’s settlement policy, in 2005 he ordered all Israeli settlers and troops withdrawn from Gaza. Opposition within the Likud Party to his willingness to accept a Palestinian state prompted Sharon to form his own party, Kadima. In January 2006, however, before he could stand for election, he suffered a massive stroke. He spent the next eight years in what doctors called a minimally conscious state. Historians will long argue what might have been in Israeli-Palestinian relations had Sharon not become incapacitated.
Eduard Shevardnadze (b. 1928) was the Soviet foreign minister under Mikhail Gorbachev who later became president of the newly independent country of Georgia. Shevardnadze was born in Georgia. He joined the Soviet Communist youth organization, Komsomol, rising through the ranks and making friends with a young Gorbachev. Shevardnadze made a name for himself exposing corruption in the Georgian Communist Party. Then-Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev rewarded him for his efforts by making him first secretary of the Communist Party of Georgia. In 1985, Gorbachev tapped Shevardnadze to be foreign minister even though he had no foreign policy experience. Shevardnadze’s tenure as foreign minister saw the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, arms control agreements signed with the United States, and the reunification of Germany. He also persuaded Gorbachev to oppose Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, paving the way for Operation Desert Storm. Shevardnadze developed good relations with U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker, who later said of him: “Shevardnadze was tough; he was tenacious; above all, he was brave.” After resigning from the Soviet government, Shevardnadze returned to his native Georgia to help smooth things over after a coup. He was elected president of Georgia in 1995 and again in 2000. He survived two assassination attempts, which may have dimmed his enthusiasm for political reform. Unrest in Georgia in 2003 over a faltering economy and growing corruption produced the Rose Revolution, which pushed Shevardnadze from office. He spent the last decade of his life in retirement.
Other significant world figures who died this year include: Shulamit Aloni, an Israeli parliamentarian who was critical of mistreating Palestinians; Rostislav Belyakov, the chief designer of the Russian MiG fighter jets; Asher Ben-Natan, the Israeli diplomat who helped to establish post-WWII relations between Israel and Germany, and who led the search for Adolf Eichmann; Sir Arthur Bonsall, a British codebreaker who helped to crack German codes during the Battle of Britain; Chung Eun-yong, a South Korean policeman who pushed for half a century to get the U.S. Army to acknowledge the massacre of Korean War refugees at No Gun Ri; Gabriel García Márquez, the winner of the 1982 Nobel Prize in Literature and a left-win social critic who was a diehard supporter of Fidel Castro; Melba Hernandez, a Cuban revolutionary who was a loyal compatriot to Fidel Castro; Ignatius Zakka Iwas, the Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church; Jaime Lusinchi, former president of Venezuela; Huber Matos Benitez, a leading figure of the Cuban Revolution who was imprisoned for twenty years after he turned against Fidel Castro and the Cuban Communist Party; Ian Player, a South African conservationist instrumental in saving the white rhinoceros; Adolfo Suarez, the first Spanish prime minister after the death of Francisco Franco; U Win Tin, a leading critic of military rule in Myanmar; and Metropolitan Volodymyr, head of Ukraine’s Orthodox Church.
Other posts in this series: