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A fate like the railways?

I have always had a deep infatuation with Nicaragua’s history, and throughout my life I have consistently made a point of learning as much of it as is humanly possible. I have spent countless hours reading my country’s history books, clicking through Wikipedia pages and watching archive footage found in rather obscure corners of the internet. The only reason why I still make a point of checking Facebook frequently is to peruse through the many Nicaraguan history pages I follow, taking pictures I find interesting and sending them to my friends and relatives every now and then. As winter break approaches, I will have the opportunity to go home for the first time since January, and I am ecstatic to once again set foot in the lands that saw me grow up. In my mind, nothing beats learning about history in the flesh and being able to once again tour Nicaragua’s landmarks. The opportunity to explore places I have not seen in ages for the first time in a while has me giddy with excitement. 

One of my favorite places to visit while in Nicaragua is Granada, a colonial city that boasts itself among the oldest continually inhabited European settlements in North America. The city’s historic center is riddled with colonial buildings that are several hundred years old, and the city’s character is an indubitable manifestation of authentic Nicaraguan identity. Among the city’s landmarks is the old railway station, my first stop on every visit to Granada, on the outskirts of its colonial core. Ever since I was young, I have been fascinated with the fact Nicaragua once had a railroad and forever heartbroken at the fact it was decommissioned in the mid-1990s, a few years before I was born. Over the years I have visited the train stations that are still lucky enough to remain standing and gathered anecdotes from elder relatives about what it was to ride the Nicaraguan Pacific Railroad of days gone by. 

Nicaragua’s railways ran for just over a century, having entered operations in the mid-1880s and shut down for good on December 31, 1993. When it first entered service, it was the magnum opus of Nicaraguan engineering. At the time, the roads that connected the country’s cities on the Pacific Coast were nothing more than dirt trails, and the railroad was the only mode of transportation that offered safe, reliable and quick travel from one point to another. During its golden era, the railway connected the port city of Corinto in the westernmost region of the Pacific Coast all the way to the port of San Juan del Sur near the border with Costa Rica. It brought together important cities like Chinandega, Leon, Managua, Masaya, Jinotepe and Rivas, and its branch lines helped extract valuable exports like cotton, coffee and cattle. It was a valuable component of the nation’s fabric and contributed to the country’s growth and development throughout the better part of the 20th century. By the time the railway was finally shut down, however, it was far past its prime. In 1982, Tropical Storm Aletta destroyed the line between Corinto and Leon, arguably the most profitable segment of the railroad. That part was never rebuilt, and an overall lack of investment and  maintenance led to its steady decline. When the government finally made the decision to shut it down for good, it argued it was unprofitable, obsolete beyond salvaging and simply not a fiscal priority. To this day, the decision provokes strong emotions in many Nicaraguan households, and “she sold off the train” is always mentioned when judging then President Violeta Chamorro’s administration. 

The fate of Nicaragua’s railways was sealed by a variety of factors: administrative ineptitude, a lack of proper upkeep, natural disasters, and the rise of the automobile. However, almost 30 years later, many people still can’t help but ask whether its closure was truly unavoidable. It is easy to argue that there was no other viable alternative but closure at the time the railway ceased operations. Nonetheless, it took over 40 years for it to get to that point. Mistakes, miscalculations and tragedies helped bring about its demise. 

One of Nicaragua’s railroad legacies is the lasting impression it left on the country’s collective memory. The train brought the country together and stands as an icon that defined an important part of life in the 20th century. As I have begun looking forward to my return to my homeland, I can’t help but reflect on how the railroad’s storied history can serve as a lesson for us all in other regards. People’s paths to success or failure are not an overnight development. Those who succeed have behind them long lists of small accomplishments that have helped consolidate their achievements into larger ones. On the other side of the same coin, those who have succumbed to failure can also count a collection of continuous mistakes that eventually made them buckle under their burdensome weight. 

When looking at life, and the path forward, I find guidance from a story like my country’s railway system. Its failure may have been inevitable at the very end, but only because it could no longer carry on with the gross accumulation of mistakes that threatened its continued existence. What you become in 10 years is not an exclusive product of what you’ll be doing nine years and 11 months from now. It is the product of every step along the way. Therefore, one must be diligent in distinguishing the good from the bad choices in order to avoid a fate like my country’s railway. 

Pablo Lacayo is a senior at Notre Dame, majoring in finance while minoring in Chinese. He enjoys discussing current affairs, giving out bowl plates at the dining hall, walking around the lakes and karaoke. You can reach him at placayo@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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What’s the path forward?

As I write this column, I find myself in a slightly uncomfortable position. It is currently on track to be printed after the conclusion of this week’s midterm elections, but will be written before the United States goes to the polls. Since I could not find any crystal ball to accurately predict the future in Notre Dame’s bot-ridden Sales and Giveaways GroupMe, the following column has no choice but to be a mixed bag of predictions I hope will turn out to be at the very least slightly correct, and an analysis that will hopefully not fall flat once the results of the midterms are known. 

The general narrative that has dominated the news cycle in the closing days of the 2022 campaign is one of Republican resurgence and potential dominance. After the Supreme Court decided to overturn Roe v. Wade this summer, Democrats were buoyed by public anger towards the ruling. Hoping to transform the elections into a referendum on abortion access, Democrats believed propelling social issues to the core of their messaging would help boost key components of their coalition: the young, women and ethnic minorities.

At first, it seemed to be working, as Democrats saw their poll numbers improve, and even came to lead Republicans throughout the waning days of summer and early into the autumn. Additionally, Democrats overperformed in special elections and gained further confidence in their strategy after abortion rights groups scored a momentous landslide victory in defense of their cause in ruby red Kansas. However, winds began to blow in the GOP’s favor as the campaign barreled into full swing, as the nation’s economic woes continued to become more latent, and Republicans took advantage of the Democratic focus on the abortion rights issue to commandeer the narrative on the economy, inflation, and crime.

The last two weeks saw the pendulum swing towards the Republicans rather precipitously, and the day before the election saw the Republicans leading Democrats by just under three points in RealClearPolitics’ generic ballot poll aggregator. FiveThirtyEight, arguably my most visited website in the past few months, predicted Republicans to be slightly favored to take control of the Senate, while simultaneously giving them over four in five odds to flip the House of Representatives as well. 

If by the time this column is printed Democrats achieve what most now see as close to impossible and retain total control of government, the first thing that will emerge is a huge sigh of relief from just about everyone in the White House. Democrats will have had made history, and would have received a huge vote of confidence from the American people, as such a victory bucks a trend that has only broken twice in over seventy years.

In this instance, business would continue as usual, with varying degrees of bickering and debate depending on the size of their parliamentary majorities. If they are anything like the one in the last two years, expect more of the same. However, most analysts agree that the aforementioned scenario is unlikely to play out, and that Republicans will have taken back at least one chamber of Congress. Here, the fate of President Biden’s agenda will take a dark turn, as its fate will come to rely on the administration’s negotiating prowess and congressional Republicans’ goodwill. 

In this instance, what’s the path forward? 

The state of polarization in contemporary American politics, and the built-in dysfunctionality of divided government presents a less than rosy picture for the remainder of President Biden’s turn. Recent history is proof enough. After taking back control of the House of Representatives in 2010, and control of the Senate in 2014, President Obama’s legislative agenda effectively stalled. After winning back the House in 2018, President Trump encountered a similar fate. In both instances, politics in the United States was reduced to partisan theater and continuous gridlock. Buoyed by their support and validation at the ballot box, Republicans in 2022 will no doubt be tempted to resort to the same strategies of the near past, and turn the remaining half of President Biden’s term into a rambunctious spectacle with the intent of gearing up to retake the White House come 2024. 

In my opinion, taking such a stance would only inflict further pain in an already hurting country. At a time where inflation soars to four decade highs and confidence in the nation’s institutions collapses to an all time low, adding more flames to the fire only threatens to sink the United States deeper into the pits of despair. The solution to the dire problems of our present will not be found forcing the government into another prolonged shutdown, vetoing every piece of legislation that lands on the Resolute Desk or stalling at every turn. 

If both Democrats and Republicans are honestly committed to improving the sliding standard of living of countless American families and refuting the 70% of Americans that think the country is on the wrong track, they both need to understand that a day of reckoning is upon them. Elections have consequences, but this time around the consequences need to go beyond who’s in the Majority and who’s in the Minority, but on how the Majority and Minority can both provide the best solutions to lift the country off such a delicate situation. 

Pablo Lacayo is a senior at Notre Dame, majoring in finance while minoring in Chinese. He enjoys discussing current affairs, giving out bowl plates at the dining hall, walking around the lakes and karaoke. You can reach him at placayo@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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Land of hope and glory?

There is no doubt 2022 has been a very rough year for humanity, as the world struggles to keep up with a wide array of crises, including red-hot inflation, surging energy costs, increasing levels of food insecurity and the ever-looming prospect of a global recession. The United Kingdom has stood out among the Western world, as it has been more hard hit than other Western countries. The logistical challenges accentuated after the country’s departure from the European Union made British supply chains more vulnerable during the Coronavirus pandemic and its aftermath, which in turn contributed to the country dealing with higher levels of inflation than its Western European counterparts. British energy bills have also been among the ones that have risen the most within the continent, and the value of the pound dropped to its lowest level in nearly four decades. In September, financial analysts projected the United Kingdom was already in the throes of a recession, and the outlook as winter approaches threatens to only get bleaker. 

Politically, the country has seen no shortage of scandal and instability as well. Three years after procuring the biggest landslide victory for the Conservative Party since 1983, and achieving the largest parliamentary majority since Tony Blair’s New Labour, prime minister Boris Johnson announced his resignation after the heavy weight of his personal scandals finally caught up to him. Controversy surrounding Johnson hosting parties during the COVID-19 lockdowns at his official residence eventually triggered a mass exodus from Cabinet, which led to Johnson’s demise in July. He was succeeded by fellow Tory Liz Truss, who took office a mere two days before the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Truss’ time at the helm was only momentary, as her government failed to gain traction thanks to a financial meltdown following economic policy announcements and a loss of credibility upon walking them back. After a mere 45 days in office, which made her the shortest-serving prime minister in British history, Truss gave way to Rishi Sunak, who entered No. 10 Downing Street on Oct. 25. Albeit being a historic first, Sunak now faces the challenge of setting the United Kingdom’s affairs in order, and set the country on the right path after a brutally demoralising 2022. 

In turbulent times like these, strong and stable leadership in the national interest is of the utmost importance. It remains to be seen whether the Sunak ministry can rise up to the challenge of the hour, but he enters office with record-low levels of popular support. YouGov polling indicated a whopping 82% of British adults disapprove of their government’s record to date. Only a dismal 6% said they did. Furthermore, polling found over three-fifths of the country is in favour of holding a general election. Evidently, the overwhelming majority of British people have lost confidence in the Conservative Party’s ability to deliver for them. What’s the holdup? 

Constitutionally, the House of Commons is not due for another election until early 2025. To grasp the date’s distance, that is still beyond the next U.S. presidential election. It is likely a new president finds themselves in the Oval Office before the British people have the opportunity to renew their Parliament and change governments. Unlike the United States and other countries with presidential systems, the United Kingdom’s parliamentary democracy allows for elections to be held ahead of schedule at the incumbent prime minister’s discretion. In British political history, it is not uncommon for recently appointed prime ministers to call snap elections in order to strengthen their mandate with voter backing. Boris Johnson and Theresa May, two of Sunak’s recent predecessors, both did this in 2019 and 2017, respectively. Former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown also considered doing so upon entering Downing Street in 2007, but ultimately decided against doing so. Considering prime minister Sunak landed the top job after running unopposed in a leadership election where only Conservative Party members of Parliament were going to have a say, clamouring for one is not out of left field. However, it would be catastrophic for him and the Tories, as they currently poll over thirty points behind the opposition Labour Party. It is therefore only natural for the freshly minted prime minister to stave off an early election as much as possible, to have time to carry out his plans for the country logistically, and to preserve the Tory’s survival politically. If he wishes to prove himself worthy of the office he inherited, Sunak must act, and act quickly. In the months that lie immediately ahead, Sunak must establish himself as a competent, capable leader. 

The Conservative Party received the biggest mandate in over twenty years back in late 2019. The circumstances have greatly changed since, and a general election is the fairest chance to provide the British people to decide which way they wish to see their country go. However, considering the incumbent government has a large working majority, a hesitancy to get blown out at the polls, and over two years left from their previous mandate, one can only hope they manage to pull the country back from the precipice she finds herself in. As the market stabilizes and Sunak rolls out his agenda, this “land of hope and glory” ought to clutch any remaining bit of hope to see herself restored to all her glory. 

Pablo Lacayo is a senior at Notre Dame, majoring in finance while minoring in Chinese. He enjoys discussing current affairs, giving out bowl plates at the dining hall, walking around the lakes and karaoke. You can reach him at placayo@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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The fate of the unipolar world

When my friends and I welcomed the new decade alongside the intermittent crashing of waves on the delectable shores of Nicaragua’s Pacific coast, we took a moment to predict what the 2020s would herald for our own lives and the potential events that might shape up the world in the years immediately ahead. Besides a few very predictable hits along the lines of “graduating” and “running it back the following New Year’s Eve,” most of our predictions fell flat and are probably resoundingly laughable at this point in time. Surprisingly enough, the only major one we managed to hit on the nail was the high possibility that we’d finish college in the midst of a recession, or at the very least teetering close to one. 

Predicting the world to come is no easy task and no one can do so with total absolute certainty, but a recurring theme regarding the future seems to arise more frequently as the nature of the global world order breaks the mold cast by the circumstances of the end of the Cold War: the end of the “unipolar world.” When the Soviet Union collapsed in the final days of 1991, the United States emerged as the world’s sole superpower. The bipolarity that had defined the international stage for nearly five decades gave way to American unipolarity. Thanks to the country’s vast network of international alliances and bilateral partnerships, the United States found itself in a position of primacy, where the defense of her interests could go virtually unchallenged. It was the perfect storm for the United States to cement herself as the most powerful country in the world, as a mass transition towards democracy in the developing world returned governments that were much more akin to allying themselves with Uncle Sam and checking as many items off America’s wishlist as they could: trade liberalization, privatization, free and fair elections and easier paths for foreign direct investment.

Up until this year, I had never heard of this concept, but became invested in it after it became one of the President of Russia’s favorite topics to spew vitriol against since the start of the Russo-Ukrainian War back in February. Throughout many of his speeches, especially those directly related to the ongoing war, President Putin has repeatedly stated his wishes for the world to do away with American unipolarity. Back in August, he asserted that the current unipolar model, which he considers obsolete, will be superseded by a new world order. Last week, he blasted the West, saying it was doomed and promised “a liberation anti-colonial movement against unipolar hegemony.” Beyond the propagandistic value of his statements, made to assuage domestic concerns regarding Russia’s underperforming military, does Putin make a valid point regarding receding American influence? 

To an extent, America’s standing on the world stage is not the same as it was in the recent past. Russia’s desire to hold former Soviet republics in a tight clutch, combined with China’s aggressive push to extend its influence into the developing world through both hard and soft power definitely weakens unipolarity, as it creates additional bands of nations that seek to act on a different set of interests than Washington’s. All that is predictable, as Russia and China have never been on the best of terms with the United States. However, what about the rest of the world, where the United States sways sizable influence? As other countries grow and consolidate their power, they naturally become more confident in moving forward as they see fit. This means the United States has to put more effort in maintaining its friends worldwide.

Within Latin America alone, countries beyond those perennially conflicted with the United States are now more willing to buck the American line. Mexico, which had been a relatively loyal companion to the United States in its preceding four administrations, now takes a significantly more independent path under President Lopez Obrador, often finding itself at odds with the approach Washington wished it took. For instance, since taking office in 2018, his government has pursued several economic and drug policies that directly counter American interests. The same can be said of other Latin American governments like Brazil, Guatemala, El Salvador and Peru, which have shown a higher willingness to go their own way. The recent election of left of center administrations that highly pride their sovereignty will definitely test the United States’ ability to retain good relations with a part of the world that has remained within her sphere of influence for multiple decades now.

A world away, the United States also has to face challenges with its European and Asian allies, as the election of more nationalistic governments in Europe creates uncomfortable tensions and leaders like newly elected Filipino president Ferdinand Marcos Jr. attempt to pull off a balancing act and draw closer to both Beijing and Washington. Although the United States has a long list of domestic concerns that need to be urgently addressed, it cannot let foreign policy fade into a secondary concern. It is important that the sovereignty of nations be respected, but the multipolar world Russia so eagerly awaits is one where liberal democracies lie on one end, and authoritarian regimes coalesce around the others. The world is shifting and the United States needs to learn to shift with it, lest President Putin’s wish be granted. Now, more than ever, the United States needs to find ways to remain at the forefront of the promotion of values considered indispensable to a proper society like freedom, democracy and the rule of law. It may be time for the United States to return to the drawing board and rethink the way it guarantees its place in the world, but it cannot by virtue of stronger rivals abandon one of its raisons d’être. The circumstances may change, as change is the only constant in life, but for the United States to accept a fate prescribed by its adversaries and quietly shepherd itself into a managed decline would be the ultimate act of betrayal to the values hundreds of millions hold close to heart, and enable authoritarianism to flourish unchecked.

Pablo Lacayo is a senior at Notre Dame, majoring in finance while minoring in Chinese. He enjoys discussing current affairs, giving out bowl plates at the dining hall, walking around the lakes and karaoke. You can reach him at placayo@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Observer.

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The contradictory road to November

In just over a month and a half, the United States of America has a very important date to keep: the 2022 midterm elections. Since the winter of 2021, every instance of significance that has dominated the news cycle at one point or another has come to be judged through midterm lenses, as political analysts, strategists and commentators weigh in how anything that happens may or may not have an impact on the decision the country makes later on this fall. Contrary to previous midterms, this year’s contests are much more of a head scratcher, as the leadup to them has been a complex minefield that can befuddle even the most devoted followers of the chaos that is contemporary American politics. Throughout the course of the summer, the consensus on how November was going to look has been constantly changing, and many races remain anybody’s guess. 

In November of 2021, the Republican Party managed to pull off an upset victory in the Virginia gubernatorial election, and came very close to winning New Jersey’s governorship as well. Considering both states had given Joe Biden comfortable, 10 plus point victories back in 2020, the shift in these states’ political mood strongly implied the American electorate was souring on Joe Biden’s administration. Commentators characterized the strong Republican performance in parts of the country that have leaned towards Democrats in recent years as a backlash against the Biden White House’s policies, wokeism and a stalled legislative agenda. Regardless of what one’s political leanings may be, there is no denying the opening act of the 2022 campaign showed the wind was blowing behind the Republican Party’s back. As the new year rolled in and inflation began heating up, sticker shock further buoyed the GOP’s standing as the Biden administration was handed a barrage of challenges to deal with. Multiple polls indicated that Republicans were far more motivated than their Democratic counterparts to turn out and vote in the fall, and found Biden’s approval rating among independent voters was also deeply underwater. Back in the late spring, I would have joined the chorus of commentators that collectively agreed a red wave was inevitable, and Republicans were poised to sweep control of both chambers of Congress. 

However, a tumultuous summer sent that prediction tumbling down, as the American political world was rattled by events that threaten to upend whatever consensus — fragile as it may have been — and send it down the drain. This June, the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution does not confer the right to an abortion. Dobbs v. Jackson overturned five decades of precedent, in what was the biggest victory for the American Christian right. Overturning Roe v. Wade transformed the playing field for the midterms, as it gave Democrats a good talking point to use to their advantage, as opinion polls showed most Americans disagreed with the landmark Supreme Court decision. Polls immediately saw blue poll numbers shoot up, and the enthusiasm gap between both parties significantly narrowed as well. Evidently, more Democrats are now motivated to turn out and vote this November, which endangers the GOP’s triumphant optimism regarding its chances later this year. The best example showcasing how consequential Dobbs v Jackson was to politics came later on in the summer, when voters in ruby red Kansas voted to reject an amendment to the state constitution that removed protections for abortion rights by nearly 20 points, a margin higher than the one former president Trump beat president Biden in 2020. 

On another note, the results of primaries in some competitive states weakens Republicans in what would otherwise be easy strong showings for them. In state after state, Republican primary voters chose to nominate candidates with former president Trump’s endorsement to the general election ballot, often picking candidates that hail from the most aggressively hard right and Trumpian wings of the GOP. In safe Republican states like Wyoming, this would usually not be an issue. However, the Republican primary choices in states like Arizona, Pennsylvania, Ohio and New Hampshire provide purple states with choices that are far more assertive in their right wing positions than their decisive pool of swing voters would prefer. These choices have caused plentiful amounts of worry among Republican leaders and strategists, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell going on the record saying “I think there’s probably a greater likelihood the House flips than the Senate. Senate races are just different—they’re statewide, candidate quality has a lot to do with the outcome.” The Republican base’s willing choice to favor candidates willing to echo every Trump talking point over their overall electability in a general election undercuts the party’s chances at retaking control of the Senate, but at flipping many House seats and governorships as well. 

As we head into November, it is impossible to predict the election’s end result with total accuracy. The leadup to America’s collective appointment at the ballot box has certainly proven itself to be confusing and chaotic, and has given us more mixed signals than the male lead in a cheesy rom-com from the 1990s. The highest inflation in the last four decades, soaring gas prices, the incumbent administration’s lagging poll numbers, the FBI raid on former president Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, the overturning of Roe v. Wade and a rambunctious primary season are all flashing contradictory signals as to how America will vote in seven weeks. However crazy things may appear to be, the civic duty remains, and it is still everyone’s imperative to make sure they make their voices heard come Nov. 8. As the date draws nearer, make sure to make a plan to vote, and either vote early while home for fall break or request to vote absentee before it’s too late! As corny and cliche as it sounds, it’s on all of us. 

Pablo Lacayo is a senior at Notre Dame, majoring in Finance while minoring in Chinese. He enjoys discussing current affairs, giving out bowl plates at the dining hall, walking around the lakes, and karaoke. You can reach him at placayo@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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In defense of the Grand Empress Dowager

When one thinks of powerful and influential women in the second half of the 19th century, it would not be surprising for the list to come up rather short, as the circumstances most women around the world found themselves in prevented them from foraying into society beyond a limited set of roles. Over the past week, I asked some of my friends who they thought could potentially top out a list of the century’s most influential women. Beyond “I have no idea” and “Why are you asking me this?” the only name which consistently came about was that of Queen Victoria, who reigned over the United Kingdom and its vast global empire for over six decades. If she can manage to remain a household name well into the 21st century and have an era named after her, then she probably is without a doubt not only the most important woman from the 19th century but also one of the greatest figures to have lived back then, irrespective of gender. However, there is another, who in my opinion beats out Queen Victoria, consigned to obscurity in the West and maligned by most in the East. 

Cixi, Grand Empress Dowager of the Qing Dynasty, was born to a Manchu family in Beijing in 1835. When she was only 16 years old, she was selected to enter the Forbidden City as one of the Xianfeng Emperor’s many consorts. In an impressive stroke of luck, she was one of the chosen few among over 60 candidates sent in from all over the Empire! Although she had a low rank within the complex structure of the Emperor’s harem, she secured her position by giving birth to Zaichun, the Emperor’s first and only son. In addition, her ability to read and write Chinese proved advantageous to her, as she was able to assist the Emperor in exercising his duties, giving her a thorough education regarding the art of governing. When Western invaders during the Second Opium War invaded and razed through Beijing, burning down the cherished Old Summer Palace, the Imperial Court fled northwards to avoid the dangers brought about by the invaders. Upon the Emperor’s death a few months later, Cixi’s five-year-old son was enthroned as the Tongzhi Emperor, with Cixi and Empress Dowager Cian, the Emperor’s official wife, serving as co-regents. 

Although tradition dictated women were strictly forbidden from meddling in politics, Cixi skillfully used her wit and cleverness to assert herself as the power behind the throne. Since the new Emperor was only a child, whoever controlled the regency would wield true power in China until the Son of Heaven came of age. Sensing the danger of having highly reactionary elements serve as the new Emperor’s minister regents as encroaching Western powers sought to continue to interfere with China, Cixi engineered a coup against the board of regents whom the deceased Xianfeng Emperor had entrusted to run political affairs throughout his successor’s childhood. After clearing the board and securing her position as the official regent, Cixi effectively controlled China for over five decades until her passing in 1908. 

After the fall of the Qing dynasty, Nationalists and Communists alike derided Cixi’s memory, framing her as an inefficient and corrupt despot ultimately responsible for China’s decline throughout the nineteenth century. Traditional historians in China have always been prejudiced against powerful women within court affairs, and the fact her legacy has been mostly defined by those deeply opposed to Imperial rule in China and one-sided accounts fed by ignorant Western contemporaries prevents one from acquiring a clearer understanding of who Cixi truly was, and her contributions to launching modern China. 

Over the summer I had the opportunity to read two books on Cixi. The first, “Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China,” by Jung Chang, is a 2013 biography that dives deeply into the inner workings of the Qing court of the time and does a lot to explain Cixi’s contributions to modernizing the almost medieval China of the time. Suppressing foot binding, cleaning up the bureaucracy, improving tax collection, crushing the Taiping rebellion and launching the Tongzhi restoration are just some of her deeds. Without Cixi’s position as regent, many historians agree Imperial China would have succumbed to the ash heap of history a lot earlier than 1912. Chang wrote this biography after going through court records, correspondence and diaries, which revealed a much more intimate picture of Cixi’s role in Chinese history. The second book, “With the Empress Dowager,” by Katharine Carl — an American artist invited to paint Cixi’s portrait and live within the Imperial Court in the early 1900s — does a lot to demystify Cixi’s enigmatic persona and bring down the perception of a power-crazed despot which still lingers to this day. 

As history is written by the victors, the modern understanding of Cixi has been distorted by relying on those who always had a deep contempt for her and the regime she symbolized. However, in defense of the Grand Empress Dowager, she presents the perfect example as to why contentious figures ought to be thoroughly analyzed and reviewed to have a more complete understanding of their role in history. Certainly, she was no saint worthy of canonization, but she certainly also was not the vicious “she dragon,” which decades of history built upon palace gossip, revolutionary vitriol and Western xenophobia made her up to be. 

To bring things back to the question of who the most important woman of the 19th century was, I close with a quote by Cixi herself: “Although I have heard much about Queen Victoria . . . still I don’t think her life is half as interesting and eventful as mine. Now look at me, I have 400 million people all dependent on my judgment.” That ought to settle any contest.

I invite you all to learn more about Cixi, whose storied life kept me wonderfully entertained throughout 75 nights while living out in Arkansas for the summer.

Pablo Lacayo is a senior at Notre Dame, majoring in Finance while minoring in Chinese. He enjoys discussing current affairs, giving out bowl plates at the dining hall, walking around the lakes, and karaoke. You can reach him at placayo@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.