2018
May
08
Tuesday
David Clark Scott
Audience Engagement Editor

The Iran nuclear deal is history. Or is it?

In pulling the United States out and reinstating sanctions on Iran Tuesday, President Trump said, “If I allowed this deal to stand, there would soon be a nuclear arms race in the Middle East…. The Iran deal is defective at its core.”

Did Mr. Trump pull out of the Iran deal with the same finality as when he pulled the US out of the Paris climate agreement? Or is this another NAFTA revise or North Korea play? When Trump negotiates, he goes in hard and makes dire threats. “You can’t be scared. You do your thing, you hold your ground, you stand up tall, and whatever happens, happens,” he wrote in “Trump: The Art of the Deal.”

French President Emmanuel Macron says that Trump is consistent and predictable. “Your president is a dealmaker,” Mr. Macron told US reporters two weeks ago. “So he wants to find a deal, and he wants to find a deal under his condition.”  

But Trump’s transactional diplomacy is high risk. With the deal broken, Iran could restart its nuclear program and be back on the path to developing a nuclear weapon. Or, Iran could stick to the terms of the deal with Europe, China, and Russia, who are important trading partners. Similar to the situation with the Paris climate accord, the US leaves, but everyone else carries on.

It didn’t sound like it today, but in six months Trump could seek to curb Iran’s regional ambitions with a new deal, negotiated with Europe’s help. And The Dealmaker could put his stamp of approval on a “better” Iran nuclear deal.

In tomorrow’s issue, the Monitor’s Howard LaFranchi will take a closer look at the relationship between the Iran nuclear deal and negotiations with North Korea. What does the new Trump foreign-policy team of Mike Pompeo and John Bolton tell us about what’s next on Iran?

Now to our five selected stories, including why Russia’s path to security means cutting military spending and how Puerto Rican moms are finding empowerment in rebuilding after the hurricane.

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1. Pulling on Pompeo: demands of State, demands of the world

As mentioned above, Mike Pompeo’s boss is a global dealmaker. Our reporter looks at how the chief US diplomat might manage that relationship as well as urgent world relationships with a depleted and demoralized staff.

David

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How much is on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s plate? Consider just a short list: Iran, Jerusalem, China, North Korea. Tuesday afternoon President Trump announced withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, which will certainly require intensive engagement from the new secretary. On Monday the United States dedicates its new embassy in Jerusalem. The looming issue of Mr. Trump’s tariffs and the threat of a trade war with China can’t be put off for long. And then there’s the small matter of Trump’s summit with Kim Jong-un sometime within the next month – and all the intricate preparations that entails. Indeed, Trump mentioned Mr. Pompeo was about to arrive in North Korea. “There is a genuine and historic foreign-policy opportunity,” says Aaron David Miller, of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. “So really all the other stuff … becomes almost irrelevant.” However, says a former State Department official, “a capable secretary of State” should be able to handle “two major diplomatic initiatives.” But “the only way that you can actually manage active crises in multiple places is to empower the institution in which you’re working.”

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Pulling on Pompeo: demands of State, demands of the world

When Mike Pompeo was finally able to address State Department employees as the new secretary of State last week, it was only after he had dashed off to Europe and the Middle East within hours of his April 26 Senate confirmation.

Mr. Pompeo’s delayed arrival to take the reins of the State Department underscores the mix of priorities the Trump administration’s top diplomat faces in the coming weeks. It’s a delicate balance he’ll have to strike between in-house refurbishment and time-consuming global diplomatic engagements that demand his attention.

On the one hand, Pompeo says his top priority will be to get down to repairing the nation’s deeply damaged diplomatic infrastructure – what he likes to call giving US diplomats their “swagger” back.

But on the other, he launches into this task at a particularly high-stakes moment in US diplomacy, when the secretary of State will be in high demand both at the White House and for consultations with US allies and partners.

Consider just a short list: Iran, Jerusalem, China, and of course North Korea.

Tuesday afternoon President Trump announced he was withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and reimposing sanctions on oil sales, a decision that up-ends US policy on a top international issue. In so doing, he’s created a situation that will certainly require intensive diplomatic engagement from the new secretary of State.

On Monday the US dedicates its new embassy to Israel in Jerusalem. And even though Pompeo decided against leading the US delegation at the ceremony marking the embassy’s move from Tel Aviv, he’ll still need to be up to speed on the move and ready to deal with its repercussions.

Relations with China and the looming issue of Mr. Trump’s tariffs and the threat of a trade war with the world’s second-largest economy can’t be put off for long.

'Historic opportunity'

And then there’s the small matter of Trump’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un sometime within the next month – and all the intricate and complex preparations that entails. In fact, Trump said during his statement on Iran Tuesday, Pompeo would soon arrive in North Korea for pre-summit groundwork.

Pompeo’s uniqueness as the one US official who has met with Mr. Kim (when Pompeo was still CIA director) means he will be indispensable to Trump’s bid to deliver a successful summit.

“For the first time in the Trump administration there is a genuine and historic foreign-policy opportunity,” says Aaron David Miller, a Middle East negotiator with extensive State Department experience who is now vice president for new initiatives at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington. “So really all the other stuff, and certainly reform at the State Department, becomes almost irrelevant.”

At the same time, however, Pompeo’s prep for the Trump-Kim summit will be all the more difficult because of the depleted ranks of senior-level US diplomats in the wake of departed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s chaotic and debilitating efforts to downsize the State Department.

Yet the summit’s imminence means Pompeo won’t have much time to fill the gaps in US-Asian diplomacy.

The magnitude of the internal and external demands Pompeo faces may be particularly acute for an entering secretary of State, but the tangle of in-house and global priorities is not in and of itself so unusual, diplomatic experts say.

What does set Pompeo’s predicament apart, some add, is that he takes on his dual-track job within an administration – and specifically for a president – that does not seem to assign much value to the role the nation’s diplomats play.

Vacancies at State

“A capable secretary of State, which by all accounts Secretary Pompeo is a capable person … should be able to chew gum and walk at the same time, including on two major diplomatic initiatives,” says a former State Department senior official, who requested anonymity to speak freely about a new administration.

But “one secretary can’t be everywhere at the same time [so] the only way that you can actually manage active crises in multiple places is to empower the institution in which you’re working,” the former senior official adds. And despite some early indications from Pompeo of his intentions to put the State Department back at the center of US diplomacy, the former official says the administration’s track record suggests a difficult road ahead.

“No senior foreign service officers or diplomatic officials have been brought in to the president’s inner circle or the National Security Council.… Diplomats at the State Department have not felt empowered, [and] career experts have not felt empowered to work on the files that are in their areas of responsibility,” he says.

“So unless there is a massive sea change in terms of this administration’s prioritization of diplomacy and empowerment of people who are actually career experts,” he adds, “it’s going to be very difficult to manage all this at once.”

Mr. Tillerson left the State Department with 8 of the 10 most senior department positions vacant, and his was the only department under the Trump administration to implement a hiring freeze. The US also still has dozens of vacant ambassadorships, including the critical post in Seoul, South Korea.

With so many key positions to fill, and with some obstacles to filling them that are peculiar to this administration – for instance, Trump has until now rejected offering jobs to any of the many prominent Republican foreign-policy experts who signed “Never Trump” letters during the presidential campaign – some experts estimate it could take Pompeo a year of focused attention to round out his diplomatic team.

On top of all this is the reality that Pompeo may want to tap his own choices for the positions that are key to the front-burner foreign-policy crises of the moment. So for example, Pompeo is not expected to go with Tillerson’s choice of having acting assistant secretary for East Asia Susan Thornton take on the post permanently – even though the always-important position is particularly front and center now, given the upcoming summit and North Korea nuclear standoff.

Mr. Miller of the Wilson Center, who has advised six secretaries of State, says Pompeo is entering uncharted territory with the tandem of a hollowed-out diplomatic corps and numerous hot-button international issues to master. “There’s no precedence for this, there are no parallels” he says, “so let’s just start de novo.”

Constituency in Congress

But Miller says Pompeo has several advantages going for him as he hews this unusual path.

“First, he knows how to talk to Trump,” he says – and that means “he has a reasonable chance of becoming the adviser with the most significant impact and the repository of foreign policy under this president.”

Another substantial advantage Miller sees in Pompeo’s column is the congressional support he can count on as he goes about revitalizing the State Department. “He’s got a constituency in Congress very much against this hollowing out of the department,” he says.

Miller says he took Pompeo’s decision to head off to a NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels within hours of his Senate confirmation as a strong signal of his priority of becoming the president’s foreign-policy communicator and voice to the world. “By making this trip to NATO and the Middle East before anything else, he was highlighting his effort to establish himself at the center of Trump foreign policy,” he says.

But that’s where Pompeo’s other task of rebuilding and revitalizing the diplomatic corps comes in, Miller says. “To get that first objective done he needs people to help him,” he adds, “and that means he’s going to need people at the State Department.”

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2. ‘Russia first’?: In spending shifts, some see Putin agenda evolving

Roads over guns? As the West worries about Russia, the idea that Moscow would cut military spending seems counterintuitive to us. But that's just what President Putin is doing with his new budget: Infrastructure spending will rise at the expense of some of the Kremlin's more ambitious defense projects.

David
Sputnik/Alexei Filippov/Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin greets supporters after an inauguration ceremony in Cathedral Square at the Kremlin in Moscow on Monday.

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With the tensions between Russia and the West so high – often being described as “a new cold war” – one might understandably assume that there is a corresponding arms race going on. But in fact, Russia's military spending is on the decline. In the first strategic program of his new and possibly final presidential term, Vladimir Putin announced plans for a relentless focus on domestic development, to be partially paid for by sharp cuts in defense spending. Recent opinion polls suggest that Mr. Putin's priority shift coincides with a war weariness on the part of Russians. A survey last month found that at least half of Russians appreciate their country's return to great power status, but 45 percent fault Putin for “failing to ensure an equitable distribution of income in the interests of ordinary people.” “It's time for a domestic focus,” says Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center. “The plan looks quite cautious and rational. It balances various interests and appeals to different lobbies. Military spending is still very important. And how these grand declarations will be brought to life is still an open question.”

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‘Russia first’?: In spending shifts, some see Putin agenda evolving

Inaugurated for his fourth official term as Russia's president Monday, Vladimir Putin surprised many by declaring what sounds like a “Russia first” program: a relentless focus on domestic development, to be partially paid for by sharp cuts in defense spending.

It may sound contrary to Western perceptions of Russia's global intentions. But the priorities listed in the new Kremlin strategic program suggest that Mr. Putin has decided to use what seems likely to be his final term in office to cement his already substantial legacy as a nation-builder.

The projected surge in spending on roads, education, and health care will have to be paid for. A key source of that funding will be the military budget, which had been growing by around 10 percent annually for much of the Putin era. 

“The times when the external threat was used to make cuts in social expenditures palatable has passed. We can't go on like that any longer,” says Pavel Zolotaryov, deputy director of the Institute of USA-Canada Studies (ISKRAN), which is part of the Russian Academy of Sciences. “A lot of the goals of military modernization have already been accomplished, so we can afford to slow it down, make selective cuts to fund social goals, while continuing the basic path.”

War weariness

In his decree, Putin ordered the new government to draw up a detailed plan by Oct. 1, aimed at social objectives that polls show many Russians find attractive. Those include increasing real incomes, raising pensions, improving housing, cutting poverty, and expanding access to quality health care. He also called for plans to invest in high-tech and export-oriented industries, and to create “transport corridors” to strengthen Russia's road, rail, and sea connections with the wider world.

Cuts to defense spending will go toward underwriting that agenda. But in fact, Russian defense spending has already started to decline. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Russian military spending fell by 20 percent last year, the first major decrease in two decades. While critics dispute the amount and suggest there may be budgetary machinations at work, most analysts agree that the share of military spending as a percentage of GDP is set to fall, from 6.6 percent in 2016, to 5 percent this year and to 3 percent by the end of Putin's current term in 2024.

Recent opinion polls suggest that Putin's priority shift coincides with a war weariness on the part of Russians, who have indulged their president as he shored up Russia’s great power status in the face of Western hostility and sanctions, by annexing Crimea and intervening in Syria. A survey last month by the independent Levada Center found that at least half of Russians appreciate their country’s return to great power status. But 45 percent fault Putin for “failing to ensure an equitable distribution of income in the interests of ordinary people,” up from 39 percent in March 2015 when the last survey was conducted.

Another poll by the state-funded VTsIOM agency confirmed that Putin’s personal approval rating is at a near all time high of 82 percent. Paradoxically, at the same time almost 90 percent of respondents said the country needs some degree of reforms, while just 2 percent said they didn’t think any changes were necessary.

Alexei Nikolsky/Sputnik/Kremlin/AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a service held by Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill (r.) in the Annunciation Cathedral after the inauguration ceremony in the Kremlin in Moscow on Monday.

Another sign that mass discontent remains distinctly possible were the large rallies, inspired by Kremlin opponent Alexei Navalny and featuring the slogan “Not Our Tsar,” that took place in several Russian cities on the eve of Putin’s inauguration. They did not approach the scale of the rallies that shook Moscow and other cities before Putin’s inauguration six years ago. Nonetheless, they were remarkable for the huge numbers of very young participants, and for the sophistication of their specific grievances – such as opposition to the Kremlin’s ham-handed attempts to shut down the Telegram messaging app.

“Six years ago Putin was forced to concentrate more on the external agenda. It worked for him. Russia looks like a great power again,” says Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center. “Now it’s time for a domestic focus. The plan looks quite cautious and rational. It balances various interests, and appeals to different lobbies. Military spending is still very important. And how these grand declarations will be brought to life is still an open question.”

A hold on new projects

Russia's strategic nuclear forces, which represent the country’s first line of defense, are likely to suffer the least in any cutbacks. Indeed, countering US missile defense systems remains the central problem for Russian strategic planners. Barely two months ago, Putin unveiled a menagerie of exotic new weapons designed to defeat or circumvent any possible anti-missile systems. But at the same time a range of planned new conventional weapons, and even some strategic ones, have been put on hold or scaled back.

Sweeping reform of Russia’s Soviet-era military machine has been in full swing since the brief summer war in Georgia revealed its shortcomings a decade ago. It began with a major restructuring of the armed forces to create leaner, more mobile, and professional units, and was followed by a ten-year procurement program to reequip all services with modern, post-Soviet weaponry.

Among the projects that have suffered major reductions are Russia’s Su-57 stealth fighter, which will put in an appearance at Wednesday's Victory Day parade on Red Square, but whose production runs have been sharply cut for the foreseeable future. The postponements plaguing the Su-57 may not be simply about saving money; the aircraft is rumored to have a great many technical glitches. Another program that’s seen huge production cutbacks is the new T-14 Armata main battle tank, which will also feature on Red Square, but not so much on the Russian Army’s front lines, where the older T-90 tanks are slated to prevail for several more years.

According to Viktor Litovkin, military editor for the official ITAR-Tass news agency, none of the more exotic ideas that have been talked up by the military brass in recent years, such as building a US-style giant aircraft carrier, make any appearance at all in the State Procurement Program for 2018-25.

“There will be minimal purchases of new equipment in the coming period,” he says. “The key thing is to master the technology and start production [of new weaponry], not to complete rearmament. The main idea is to have ‘necessary and sufficient’ tools to do the assigned tasks.”

‘Our new normal’

Analysts say there could be another dimension to Putin's new focus on domestic development: fresh efforts to mend fences with the West.

“There is no doubt that Putin wants better relations. His liberal advisers tell him the restoration of economic growth requires an easing of sanctions and better access to Western finance and technology,” says Alexei Mukhin, head of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow.

“But that’s easier said than done. What to do about Ukraine? In fact, most of our leaders have already adjusted to the permanence of sanctions, and the reality of isolation. The new program of development will simply work within that virtual state of war with the West. It's our new normal.”

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3. Amid slow Maria recovery, Puerto Ricans are doing it for themselves

When you’ve been hit hard by disaster, feeling forgotten as you pick up the pieces can be yet another blow. But as communities band together to recover, some also find encouragement, empowerment – and inspiration to make deeper changes after the electricity returns.

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On this spring day, Las Carolinas is buzzing with excitement: “Los Gringos” are coming, and not just any “gringos.” These are electricity workers from all over the mainland United States. They’ve come to repair power lines and towers in Puerto Rico, where six months after hurricane Maria, some 145,000 people were still waiting to get back on the grid. Two mothers leaving a nearby Head Start center with their toddlers stop to cheer when a truck whizzes by. The workers honk and wave like celebrities to their adoring fans. But as Puerto Rico continues the mammoth task of “building back better,” much of the work is being done not by outsiders but by locals coming together, particularly women. Over the past decade, as Puerto Rico’s economic crisis has deepened, residents have gained more of a reputation for leaving the island in pursuit of jobs than for confronting the many challenges at home. Now that perspective may be changing post-Maria, as more communities unite around taking their survival – and future – into their own hands.

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Amid slow Maria recovery, Puerto Ricans are doing it for themselves

Gloria Cotto stands in an abandoned elementary school in this mountainous town in central Puerto Rico, stirring a giant silver pot of beans. It’s 7:30 a.m., and the blue flame of the donated gas stove is the brightest light in the room since the country plunged into darkness six months ago.

“You can only eat so much sausage and canned tuna,” says Ms. Cotto, teetering on top of a plastic milk crate, her hairnet sliding back around her graying topknot. “You can only eat so many meals alone.”

Cotto and a core group of volunteers have been filling this former public-school cafeteria with donated food and home-cooked meals three days a week since Nov. 6, joining hundreds of volunteers across the island who are heroically helping communities survive after an unprecedented natural disaster and epic power outage. Without them, hundreds in this town would go hungry.

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Volunteer Gloria Cotto prepares food at a community kitchen set up in Las Carolinas to feed people affected by hurricane Maria.

The winds of hurricanes Irma and Maria felled trees, cut off water supplies, and pulled the plug on the island’s power last September. Tens of thousands of families are still without electricity, requiring them to adapt to a situation everyone believed would be temporary but has proved to be a punishing new normal. That means studying by candlelight; using generators for things once taken for granted, such as keeping medications cold or chilling fresh meat; and coping with family separations that have accelerated in the aftermath of the tragedy. 

Yet, across the island, individuals are coming together to take charge of a situation the government has yet to resolve. Over the past decade, as Puerto Rico’s economic crisis has deepened, residents have gained more of a reputation for leaving the island in pursuit of jobs than for confronting the many challenges at home. Now that perspective may be changing post-Maria, as more communities unite around taking their survival – and future – into their own hands.

“It wasn’t long before we realized if we wanted to see a response, it would have to come from us,” says Carmen Texidor, a retired health-center administrator who helped launch the community kitchen here. In many communities – particularly rural, mountainous ones – neighbors like Cotto and Ms. Texidor have turned to one another, sharing resources informally and launching Centers of Mutual Support (CAMs for their initials in Spanish), of which there are about a dozen across the island. They’re cooking food en masse on gas stoves for neighbors without functioning kitchens, delivering meals to the bedridden and elderly, installing water filtration stations by riverbanks, and fostering a sense of purpose in a situation where many feel forgotten and left behind. 

The community mobilization that has come out of Puerto Rico’s one-two punch of natural disasters is, in part, a reflection of the struggling economic state of the island. Puerto Rico filed for the equivalent of federal bankruptcy protection in May 2017, owing more than $100 billion in debt and unfunded pensions. Maria transformed the already dire economic situation into a humanitarian crisis. But for those involved in the efforts to help families and neighborhoods help themselves, this is a chance to instill a sense of leadership – and push Puerto Rico in a new direction.

“When we started the CAM, we didn’t see it as temporary relief,” says Giovanni Roberto, a community leader in nearby Caguas. “Our analysis was that Maria wasn’t the crisis. The storm just exposed the need for structural change. This is our opportunity.”

 

***

Volunteers – mostly retired women – trickle onto the school grounds throughout the morning on a recent Monday. Donning aprons and plastic gloves, they can see exactly where their help is needed, and they jump in: stirring pots, chopping meat and vegetables, organizing carry-out containers, and sweeping the floors.

Charito Arroyo pulls partially frozen chicken breasts out of a large white cooler and starts unwrapping them. She travels to a nearby town and buys the frozen meat and other ingredients the night before most meals. “Have you seen our fridge?” she asks a visitor, pointing to a plastic cooler. 

Ms. Arroyo lives in a nearby town but grew up in Las Carolinas. The community of about 500 people, 40 minutes south of the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan, is dotted with homes that cling to steep, lush hillsides or sit along washed-out riverbanks. Most of the houses are one-story concrete structures, but many have second floors jerry-built out of wood.

It is the wooden additions that were most damaged by the hurricanes’ lethal winds and rain. Some obliterated homes are already overgrown with twisting vines. Elsewhere, driveways are filled with water-damaged furniture waiting to be removed. 

Arroyo’s mother, who lives in Las Carolinas, had to travel to her daughter’s house for the first three months after the hurricanes to take showers. Other local residents bathed and washed their clothes in the river that runs through town.

In November, two area residents, Texidor and Rosario Gonzalez, hopped the fence surrounding the local elementary school, which had been closed in the spring because of declining enrollment. They were looking for a place – any place – that had survived and could be used as a staging center. Soon, children as young as 12 and retirees in their 80s came together to scrub floors and remove debris in the low-slung building, transforming the school’s abandoned cafeteria into a community kitchen.

“Everything was unlocked. The doors just opened,” says Cotto, who worked at the school for nearly three decades. Like most people in the community, Cotto doesn’t have access to a working stove or refrigerator at home since she has no electricity. Her roof leaks.

“It was the center of our community,” says Cotto of the school, as she rummages through a storage room in search of more jambalaya seasoning. “You either went to school here or sent your children here. When it closed, we lost something concrete that brought us together.”

Others quickly chipped in to help. A local chef who cooked at the San Juan airport left Puerto Rico for Orlando, Fla., after the storm. He donated his knives, pots, pans, and a stove. Churches and mosques started showing up with donated food, and members of the Puerto Rican diaspora have sent money so the CAM can purchase meat and other necessities to keep their neighbors fed. 

Meals here were provided free of charge until March 5, when the CAM started asking diners to donate $1 if they planned to take extra food. A sign at the entryway offers other options: “Trade: food, work, money. Thank you.”

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Residents in Las Carolinas wait in line for free food supplied by a mutual help association, one of about a dozen.

***

Today, the building serves as more than just an emergency canteen. One former classroom is filled with donated clothing and home goods. Locals stage weekend dance classes and storytelling events or hold workshops to teach residents how to make their own mosquito repellent. Volunteers are painting another room bright yellow to cover the water stains on the walls. It will serve as an acupuncture center, run by trained volunteers on the weekend.

“You’ll see how beautiful this will be. It will motivate people,” says Teresa Pinto Gonzalez, a volunteer who decided it needed the makeover and bought the paint. “People’s homes are damaged, and it’s one hard thing after another. It’s important to see something cared for.”

Yet the CAM does more than provide food and give people a social outlet. It has helped residents feel that they are part of something bigger than themselves.

“Helping gives me purpose,” says Texidor. Her home wasn’t badly damaged in the storms, but she watched as neighbors moved away and others struggled to maintain their health. “The work is therapeutic for me.”

About a five-minute drive over the undulating roads of Las Carolinas, Maria Ortiz points to where her son’s home used to sit. Signs of his former life are evident in the rubble: A framed painting of three musicians hangs lopsidedly near a blown-away wall. A lone angel magnet sticks to the abandoned refrigerator.

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Hurricane Maria destroyed many homes in Puerto Rico, including this one: the home of Maria Ortiz's son, in the neighborhood of Las Carolinas. Six months after the hurricane, Las Carolinas still had no electricity.

“I lost my family,” Ms. Ortiz, a homemaker, says. Her loved ones lived through the storm, but her children have fled to the mainland United States. 

“I got really depressed,” Ortiz says. She came to eat at the CAM one afternoon and was invited to come back and help cook.

“I didn’t want to be imprisoned in my home anymore,” she says. “Cooking for the community became a mental refuge for me. I realized I have to do more than survive if I want to build a better future.”

Most of the volunteers here are women, which is significant. Across the country, women have played a vital part in trying to help Puerto Rico revive. 

“Many women are leading, organizing, and participating in these spaces,” says Mr. Roberto, the community leader in Caguas. “In Puerto Rico we talk about youth [leadership], but we don’t value older women.... I believe this movement is making us recognize” their key role in the island’s communities. 

It’s also a reflection of the depopulation and demographic shifts that have been taking place in Puerto Rico for years. An estimated 80,000 people were leaving the country each year in search of more opportunity before the hurricanes. Now those numbers are expected to swell to several hundred thousand annually for the foreseeable future. 

At the same time, the island’s population of 3.3 million is increasingly skewing older. The neighborhood association president in Las Carolinas estimates that more than 60 percent of local residents are over the age of 60 – and dependent on government assistance.

Still, the people who have stayed have forged a bond in hardship. “It’s like a funeral: After suffering the tragedy, we were brought together emotionally,” says Jose Enrique Algare, a 70-something volunteer at the CAM. “I see my neighbors in a new way. We are sharing as if we are all family.”

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Residents in Las Carolinas enjoy a free meal supplied by a mutual help association.

***

On this day, the teamis preparing a special meal in hopes that “Los Gringos” will swing by to eat with them. That’s the term used lovingly to describe the electricity workers who have traveled from all over the mainland US to repair power lines and towers in Puerto Rico. The electricity trucks pulled into town over the weekend.

No one’s power has been restored yet – it could still take months – but the community is buzzing with excitement. Two mothers leaving a nearby Head Start center with their toddlers stop to cheer when a truck from upstate New York whizzes by. The workers honk and wave like celebrities to their adoring fans. 

The island was entirely without power following Maria. 

By February, nearly half a million families were still living in the dark. As of March 9, some 145,000 people were waiting to get back on the grid. That includes the entire community of Las Carolinas. Even when power is restored, outages are common: On April 20 the entire island was plunged into darkness for a day after a transmission line went down.

“The magnitude of destruction to the Puerto Rican power grid is beyond anything we’ve ever seen in the United States,” says Col. Jason Kirk, the US Army Corps of Engineers commander for the power restoration task force in Puerto Rico. Part of the problem was the 155-mile-per-hour winds that tore across the island. But poorly maintained infrastructure – combined with the mountainous terrain in rural areas, which has made access difficult, as well as the need for large amounts of replacement materials – has added to the severity of the restoration challenge.

Utility crews focused first on municipal areas with large populations. Now they are finally reaching rural towns. In some cases, the terrain is so difficult that crews are using helicopters to string power lines from pole to pole.

“These are first-pass efforts,” Kirk says of what is still considered “emergency” power repairs, half a year after the hurricanes hit. A lot of the fixes, in other words, are temporary. The priority is simply to get people plugged in. Then, says Kirk, it will be up to the Federal Emergency Management Agency; Puerto Rico’s power utility, PREPA; and the Puerto Rican government to design what the permanent grid will look like in the future.

While local residents are aware of the challenges utility workers face, that doesn’t make living without power any easier. Many are paying $20 to $30 a day for gas to fuel their generators. In the town of Mariana, on the east coast of the island, one family painted the street in front of their home to read “SOS Water Food.” A poster hangs from their balcony decrying the expense of running a few key electronics through a generator: “1/2 a year without light we can’t manage more $$$.” 

“I can barely talk about this,” says Nelida Colon, sobbing as she motions toward the sign. “My husband and I have $900 a month in Social Security, and we’re running out of money” paying for a generator. “The government isn’t here. There’s no work. It’s like we don’t exist, like our town’s not on the map.” 

The CAM in her community recently installed a water purification system in the river near her home, and Ms. Colon visits their community kitchen for meals periodically as well. 

“I never thought it would be this way,” she says. “But at least my neighbors are organizing.”

***

At 11:30 a.m. four volunteers hop into a black minivan at the CAM in Las Carolinas. The back of the car is loaded with crates of hot soup and containers brimming with rice and chicken. The team cruises through the steep, curving streets of the neighborhood with both sliding doors open. They’re the hunger SWAT team: speedy, prepared, and full of energy. Texidor, the driver, honks periodically, signaling to neighbors that her team is on its way. 

At each delivery, women jump out of the van wearing plastic gloves and carry food to the homes of the nearly 100 bedridden or elderly people in this small community. Sometimes, Texidor starts driving ahead, leaving a volunteer to grab the next delivery while the van is still moving. Some of the houses they pass have blue tarps draped over roofs and orange netting acting as fencing. 

After several deliveries, the team hits a snag: No one’s home. Carmen Broges, one of the volunteers, calls out “Buenas!” as she walks down the steep driveway. “Lunch! Good afternoon!” she tries again, this time knocking and peeking through a back window. Just when she’s about to give up, a car pulls in, and an older man helps his wife, dressed in a flowing nightgown, slippers, and hot-pink socks, out of the car. 

“Oh thank you, thank you,” he says, when he sees Ms. Broges. She helps the couple walk the rest of the steep path into their dark home. “What would we do without you?” the man asks.

***

The US has been no stranger to natural disasters over the past 15 years. From hurricane Katrina, superstorm Sandy, and more recently, hurricane Harvey, relief officials have been absorbing lessons for future prevention of and response to storm damage.

But the economic situation in Puerto Rico is so dire that it has exacerbated the hurricanes’ effects, making both emergency relief and long-term planning more difficult. The poor are becoming poorer. Jobs are becoming even more scarce. 

“The biggest thing right now is the urgency of how Congress and the White House will address [Maria and Irma damage] down the road,” says Raúl Santiago-Bartolomei, a project manager at the leading Puerto Rican think tank, the Center for a New Economy.

Puerto Rico has elected government officials (with no representation in Congress) but is limited in how it can spend or borrow by a fiscal control group appointed under President Barack Obama. The board is meant to help the island climb out of its economic crisis. 

“If you compare this with New Orleans or [superstorm] Sandy, there’s less emphasis on long-term recovery,” says Mr. Santiago. “Who will implement long-term goals here? Who will refine those goals? The control board wants to be more proactive, but they don’t really govern or implement solutions.”

As a result, he says, the situation is pushing citizens to develop their own answers locally. His only concern is how this will work in the aggregate. “Not all communities have access to the same resources,” he says. “There are many solutions that aren’t scalable right now. What does that look like for Puerto Rico in the long term?”

One vision might lie in the town of Adjuntas, a 70-mile twisting and turning drive from Las Carolinas. 

Back in 1980, Adjuntas was at risk of becoming a site for open-pit mining. The community joined forces to fight the development, organizing protests and creating a center for community support known as Casa Pueblo. Once Adjuntas successfully won its battle, the community-run organization had to decide what was next.

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Severina Hernandez Ramos, at her home in Adjuntas, received a solar fridge from Casa Pueblo through a program designed to promote energy independence.

“Do we evolve, or do we disappear?” recalls Casa Pueblo co-founder Alexis Massol González, sitting at a long wooden table inside the bustling community center. Outside, music students sit on the porch of a solar-powered radio station. Volunteers give visitors cups of coffee brewed from beans cultivated by the community group. 

After Maria, Casa Pueblo became a center for educating about solar power across the island. Locally, it reached out to some of the most vulnerable families, providing solar-powered fridges for those with urgent medical needs and solar lamps to anyone who requested one. As the months rolled on without power, neighbors started asking for more information about installing solar panels on their homes. A barbershop downtown now runs entirely on solar power. 

“So many groups have emerged after Maria, focusing on education, on feeding their neighbors, on helping their communities survive,” says Mr. Massol. “These new groups, they’re not running out of ideas. There’s long-term work ahead of them. It’s fundamental for Puerto Rico.”

The volunteers at the cafeteria in Las Carolinas are thinking about what’s next, too. Once the lights are flipped back on, the question is whether people simply retreat to their former lifestyles.

“We won’t stop feeding the elderly and the sick, now that we know who they are,” says Arroyo.

Inside the cafeteria, the volunteers are cleaning up after serving roughly 200 meals that day. Kids start arriving after school, picking up brooms to help with the cleanup.

“My hope is that when people come through the CAM, they leave and see their community in a new light,” says Texidor. “We’re breaking the stereotype of always taking and receiving. We’re doing it ourselves. And that’s why, when the light finally returns, our work won’t end. What we’ve created will only shine brighter.”

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4. Weighing the environmental ethics of globe-trotting

If you’re a world traveler, you may want to support developing nations and get to know your global neighbors, but you probably don’t want to pollute the planet. Ecotourism and airline carbon offset programs seek to balance these competing values.

David

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For many globally minded travelers, tourism offers not just an escape, but a means to support emerging economies. Yet that can be difficult to reconcile with the environmental burdens of the industry. A study published Monday pins some 8 percent of total carbon emissions on global tourism. That carbon footprint raises questions of its own: Who bears the responsibility for it? Individuals? Airlines? Travel companies? Policymakers? And what about the benefits of travel? Do the dollars going into economies that rely on tourism, and the increased global understanding travel can foster, help mitigate tourism’s damage? Ultimately, researchers say they hope the study will serve to raise awareness for tourists, the tourism industry, and policymakers. Some individuals and private companies have already taken steps to reduce their use of air travel. Other individuals look to carbon offsets to mitigate the harm from their travel. But others see problems with putting too much of the onus for reducing emissions on the individual, saying that global-scale problems require national-level interventions.

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Weighing the environmental ethics of globe-trotting

What if the best way to save the planet were simply to stay put?

study published Monday in Nature Climate Change finds that global tourism is responsible for some 8 percent of total carbon emissions – about three times more than what previous studies had calculated.

In 2013, tourism accounted for 4.5 gigatons of carbon emissions. And the industry is growing by about 4 percent a year.

That carbon footprint raises questions of its own: Who bears the responsibility for it? Individuals? Airlines? Travel companies? Policymakers? And what about the benefits of travel? Do the dollars going into economies that rely on tourism, and the increased global understanding travel can foster, help mitigate tourism’s damage?

“There’s a running joke that the best ecotourist is the one that walks to the neighborhood park,” says Carter Hunt, an assistant professor at Pennsylvania State University who studies the anthropology of tourism. At the same time, he notes, there is good research documenting the positive effects tourism can have on people and their actions. “Whether that’s something that’s an offset or compensates for that environmental impact – that’s really challenging to say. They’re both compelling arguments.”

Previous estimates put tourism’s carbon emissions at 2.5 to 3 percent of global emissions. This new study attributes a much larger carbon footprint to tourism than previous studies have, mostly because it was far more comprehensive. By analyzing both global trade databases and tourism data, the researchers were able to trace more than a billion supply chains that underpin the industry, says Arunima Malik, one of the authors of the study and a researcher at the University of Sydney in Australia.

One issue that gets some attention in the study is the degree to which small island nations – like the Maldives and Seychelles – depend on tourism. International tourism accounts for up to 80 percent of national carbon emissions for such islands.

“People go there and that’s the main source of income,” says Dr. Malik. “But those island states are particularly vulnerable to the effects of rising emissions…. What do those small islands need to do?”

The study looked at 160 countries over five years, and breaks down the footprint by domestic and international travel, and between various nations, with some surprising results. The majority of emissions came from domestic travel, with international travel responsible for 23 percent of tourism’s carbon footprint, says Malik. The biggest impacts stemmed from travelers from and to high-income countries.

And as overall affluence grows, so does tourism, the study’s authors write, noting that “global demand for tourism is outstripping the decarbonization of tourism operations, and, as a result, is accelerating global carbon emission.”

How to mitigate?

Ultimately, Malik says she hopes the study will serve to raise awareness for tourists, the tourism industry, and policymakers. Within academia, she notes, conferences are often the biggest drivers of travels, and she hopes more universities will consider alternatives –  like teleconferencing – to having people fly long distances for a few days. “The key recommendation is to fly less,” Malik says.

That’s a recommendation some individuals are already acting on due to their concern about climate change. A number of earth scientists and academics have made public pledges to cease flying, or fly less, sharing their stories and their reasons at No Fly Climate Sci.

Eric Holthaus, a meteorologist and staff writer for Grist, made headlines in 2014 when he wrote about his decision to stop flying due to climate concerns.

Mr. Holthaus says his decision (he’s made a couple of exceptions over the years to get to family events) has brought unexpected benefits, allowing him to interact more personally with the place he lives in, to slow down, and to plan more local trips to places like national parks.

“What we’re talking about is a change in culture, getting happiness from more local travel, or slower travel,” Holthaus says. A jet-setting culture in which people travel around the globe for a few days or a week is “not compatible with a future that is livable.”

Other individuals look to carbon offsets – money that goes into projects that decrease emissions, like replanting trees, or improving energy efficiency – to mitigate the harm from their travel. The best of these are verified by rigorous standards and third-party certification, but they’re generally voluntary, and have yet to gain in popularity.

Benjamin Hale, an environmental ethics professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder, sees problems with putting too much of the onus for reducing emissions on the individual.

“Most of these global-scale environmental problems can’t be easily addressed by individual actions. They have to be addressed at the policy level,” says Professor Hale. Relying too much on individuals to take the right actions can mean that the individuals who “care” cede ground to those who don’t, allowing people who care less about the environment “to take advantage of a system that enables them to do so.”

He cautions against looking at carbon footprints as the only way to determine the best environmental actions. “Down that road is ascetism, or self-abnegation… It’s a worrisome standard of environmental policy,” he says, arguing instead for policy-level solutions and incentives for the travel industry to change their standards.

A few smaller operators are already doing that. Professor Hunt notes that Nature Air, one of Costa Rica’s two airlines, builds carbon offsets into their flight pricing. So far, he says, most consumers don’t seem to notice, either positively or negatively.

And some tour operators, like Natural Habitat Adventures, which operates dozens of small-scale eco-tours globally, have committed to being carbon-neutral.

The carbon footprint of tourism is “everyone’s responsibility,” says Ted Martens, Natural Habitat’s vice president for marketing and sustainability. Carbon offsets are built into Natural Habitat’s pricing, and the company also encourages all its customers to purchase carbon offsets for their personal airfare at the start of a trip – an option Mr. Martens acknowledges few customers act on, but that he hopes raises awareness of the issue.

Martens knows Natural Habitat’s actions aren’t enough to move the needle on tourism’s carbon footprint, but he hopes that by setting the precedent they encourage both tourists and other, bigger players in the travel industry to follow their lead.

And he hopes that people’s awareness of that carbon footprint pushes them to choose more responsible ways to travel – a locally owned eco-lodge versus an all-inclusive resort owned by a big conglomerate, perhaps – rather than cease travel altogether.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the benefit of traveling far outweighs the negatives,” says Martens, citing both cross-cultural understanding and the economic benefit to host countries and regions, a benefit that is often much less environmentally destructive than the alternatives.

In the end, says Hale, the ethicist, studies like this recent one are useful in terms of helping industries and governments set policies, and in helping to understand where emissions come from, but it would also be a mistake to see carbon emissions as the only aspect of environmentalism that matters.

“It’s important to have a sense of the footprints we’re creating in the world,”  Hale says, “but there are many more factors that go into determining if that footprint is warranted or justified than just that it’s a footprint.” 

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5. Why modern dance touches hot buttons in Cambodia

When does innovation become a dilution of traditional values? That’s the challenge for Cambodian dancers trying to infuse some modern moves into their traditional performances.

David
Nathan A. Thompson
Sros Sreynich (l.) and Ny Lai, members of New Cambodian Artists, the country's first contemporary dance company, rehearse.

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The New Cambodian Artists, the first contemporary dance troupe in the country, was once banned from performing at the nearby Angkor UNESCO World Heritage Site because their style was “not Cambodian enough.” Concern that the dancers are importing Western styles and losing their roots is perhaps heightened by the fact that Cambodia’s classical art was nearly destroyed forever during the Khmer Rouge years. In the late 1970s, the brutal regime targeted artists and killed almost all dance masters in the country. “The form was nearly lost,” says Emmanuèle Phuon, a French-Cambodian choreographer who studied at the Cambodian Royal Ballet before the Khmer Rouge seized power. “There is a need to conserve and perpetuate that form…. To get a lively, thriving culture of dance, first you need to rekindle the interest in dance,” she says. “If the new forms motivate some people to protect the old form, that’s wonderful! Unfortunately, the main problem [in Cambodia] is that very few people really care.”

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Why modern dance touches hot buttons in Cambodia

Performing a dance in red stilettos is not allowed at Angkor Archaeological Park, but that’s not stopping Khun Sreynoch from working on it.

As members of Cambodia’s first contemporary dance company, Ms. Sreynoch and her closest colleagues have known each other since they were children studying Cambodian classical dance, or Apsara. But in fusing old and new, the innovations of the New Cambodian Artists (NCA) have conflicted with traditionalists who want to protect Apsara from what they see as dilution.  

“If I use high heels to perform Apsara moves [the conservatives] will say I’m destroying Cambodian culture,” says Sreynoch. “But I don't think so. I’m developing it and making it fresher and more special.”

In 2016, NCA was banned from performing at the nearby Angkor UNESCO World Heritage site – which attracted about 2.5 million visitors last year – because their style was “not Cambodian enough” and their costumes were “too sexy,” according to Kong Soengva, another dancer.  

Long Kosal, spokesman for the Apsara Authority, which manages the temple site, refused to comment on the case. “All performers are welcome to submit requests [to perform at the park] and we will decide if it is suitable or not,” he says by phone.

Tasked with protecting Cambodian culture, the Apsara Authority and the Ministry of Culture and Fine Art decide which artists are certified to perform in public areas. “It’s difficult to find a balance between those who are very conservative, the modernists, and those in the middle,” says Hab Touch, director general of the Ministry. (Apsara is a name for a female heavenly spirit in Hindu and Buddhist mythology, as well as shorthand for the female classical dancers in Cambodia and the style of traditional dance they perform.)

“We want contemporary art but Cambodian contemporary art,” he says, sitting in front of several framed certificates from UNESCO that designate Apsara dance as part of the intangible culture of humanity. He adds that he is concerned about dancers importing Western styles and losing their roots.

That concern is perhaps heightened by the fact that Cambodia’s classical art was nearly destroyed forever during the Khmer Rouge years. In the late 1970s, the brutal regime targeted artists and killed almost all dance masters in the country.

“The form was nearly lost,” says Emmanuèle Phuon, a French-Cambodian choreographer who studied at the Cambodian Royal Ballet before the Khmer Rouge seized power. “There is a need to conserve and perpetuate that form.”

“To get a lively, thriving culture of dance, first you need to rekindle the interest in dance,” she says, via email. “If the new forms motivate some people to protect the old form, that’s wonderful! Unfortunately, the main problem [in Cambodia] is that very few people really care.”

The fusion of Apsara dance with contemporary styles is unique, says Dutch artistic director Bob Ruijzendaal. He founded the company in 2012 before handing over ownership to the dancers in 2016. “In Apsara dance, the back is hollow, they have flat feet, very grounded toes and the hands are overstretched,” he says. “[They do] everything they would kill you for in classical dance course in Europe.”

The distinctive hand gestures are called chib in Khmer, the language of Cambodia. Here, young dancers perform intense finger stretches every day to create gestures that mimic the growth of a tree, from seed to branch. Srey Nich, another NCA dancer, demonstrates the stretch by dragging her fingers terrifyingly far back towards her forearm. On the dance floor in their single-story, tin-roofed studio, the dancers’ movements unfold like a conversation: a pirouette is answered by an Apsara pose, using rooted feet and fingers spiked like a cactus.

Indifference from locals and a lack of cultural infrastructure are challenges NCA work with on a daily basis. Ellen Steinmüller, a German-born dance artist, was struck by the situation when she visited NCA to volunteer in 2016.

“Cambodia faces a lack of cultural infrastructure that is hard to appreciate from a Western perspective,” she says, writing in Culture360. “The radical policies of the Khmer Rouge regime in the 70s left Cambodia deeply scarred…. The result is a lack of artistic development and funding as well as a lack of public accessibility and engagement.”

Mr. Touch says the ministry is doing its best within a limited budget. “We only have small spaces for our artists to show their work,” he says. “Classical Cambodian dance is very important for the world and we are moving, step-by-step, to support contemporary dance too.”

In their studio, the NCA dancers move fluently across the only sprung floor – a must for modern dancers – in the country. They built it themselves, according to Mr. Ruijzendaal. “It’s a layer of rubber, a layer of planks, and then more rubber and wood, so it’s always soft,” he says.  

The dancers move offstage and the lights dim. A spotlight falls on Sreynoch, who begins her solo wrapped in a traditional woolen cloth. She moves, as if aged, towards a lone microphone.

The dance is a tribute to her grandmother, who was a lesbian. “She divorced my grandfather and lived with her girlfriend,” Sreynoch says. “She is my first role model because she chose her own life and didn’t care [about conventions].”

After telling the story into the microphone, Sreynoch puts on the stilettos and fashions her body into heavenly Apsara shapes, hands stretched like starfish. “The red shoes show that I’m a strong Cambodian lady,” she says.

Then she abandons the shoes and launches across the floor in a series of barefoot bounds and athletic swoops. “I don’t need the red shoes either; I’m strong enough,” she says. “The dance shows the evolution of character.” She finishes and the others applaud, “Bravo!”

“People will think [their performances are] provocative, but artists should be a little provocative,” Ruijzendaal says. “They’re real artists in that sense.”

Ms. Soengva sips a cup of coconut juice and nods. “It’s very daring to change the tradition, but we like it.”

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The Monitor's View

What happens after an anti-corruption victory

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Armenia has joined a string of other nations where recent anti-corruption protests have ousted one leader and led to a new one promising clean governance. Its revolution was led by a former journalist, Nikol Pashinyan, who not only helped bring down a corrupt leader last month through nonviolent means but was then chosen by the Parliament May 8 to become prime minister. In a speech to a crowd, he congratulated them on standing up for honesty, transparency, and equality before the law. But turning promises of reform into reality requires more than government reforms or new election procedures. It also depends on the people sustaining the mental shift that compelled them to join others from diverse parts of society in protest. Also essential: ending anger at the ousted corrupt officials and implementing the virtues necessary for good governance. Armenia’s new prime minister must still face the remnants of the old ruling party in Parliament and an economy dependent on oligarchs tied to Russia. But if he can continue to mobilize the people and build on their shift in consciousness, Armenia might break into the ranks of least-corrupt nations.

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What happens after an anti-corruption victory

Armenia has now joined a string of other nations from South Korea to Burkina Faso where anti-corruption protests have ousted one leader and led to a new one promising clean governance. As so often happens in such revolutions, the people in Armenia are stunned at the power of their collective virtue. And they are left asking, “Now what?”

In Armenia, the revolution was led by a former journalist, Nikol Pashinyan, who not only helped bring down a corrupt leader last month through nonviolent means but was then chosen by the parliament on May 8 to become prime minister. In a speech to a crowd, he declared, “The people won.” And he congratulated them on standing up for honesty, transparency, and equality before the law.

“There will be no privileged people in Armenia and that’s it,” he said, promising an end to an oligarch-led kleptocracy.

Yet as corruption experts know well, turning such promises into reality requires more than government reforms or new election procedures. Reform also depends on the people sustaining that mental shift which compelled them to join others from diverse parts of society in protest.

Most Armenians had long shared an experience of paying bribes or seeing corrupt officials siphon off public money. As in many countries, they assumed politicians were in power for themselves. Now they share the discovery of fellow citizens openly embracing and demanding the practice of universal values in their leaders.

In a study last month of countries that have seen some success after anti-corruption protests, Sarah Chayes of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace found many achieved a subtle but significant change in public attitudes. An acceptance of fatalism about corruption had been broken and in its place was a common desire to build systems of integrity.

But she adds, “Although protesters have shown remarkable stamina in taking to the streets night after night for weeks or months on end in order to achieve their dramatic objectives, it remains to be seen whether their staying power is sufficient to maintain focus on less emotionally satisfying legalistic reforms, and to anchor the newly articulated ethics in public expectations and official behavior.”

One essential change is to drop the anger at the ousted corrupt officials and start implementing the virtues necessary for good governance. “The page of hatred should be turned,” Mr. Pashinyan told the crowd. And in a sign of the challenges of doing that, he added: “May God help us.”

Armenia’s future after this “velvet revolution” is still unknown. The new prime minister must still face the remnants of the old ruling party in parliament and an economy dependent on oligarchs tied to Russia. If he can continue to mobilize the people and build on their shift in consciousness, Armenia might break into the ranks of least-corrupt nations.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Always ‘above water’

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Today’s column explores how we can meet life’s challenges with spiritual poise that does more than just keep us afloat.

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Always ‘above water’

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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When I called a friend to see how she was doing regarding some challenging family issues, she said, “Well, I’m keeping my head above water.”

In thinking about what I could say that might be helpful to share with her, the following came to mind. Many years ago when I was teaching swimming, the very first skill we taught was how to float, so that everybody would always feel confident in water. We also taught the students how to tread water, so they could keep their heads above water if they found themselves in heavy waves.

Sometimes, when we’re faced with life’s turbulent waters, it can seem as though we don’t have what it takes to stay afloat. But we do. Through God’s grace we have the spiritual strength to meet life’s challenges with poise and dominion.

Years ago I was put in a situation at work that brought with it what seemed like a deluge of responsibilities beyond my capabilities. But rather than panic, I took a moment to think about something I’d been learning in my study of Christian Science: that God’s power and goodness are always present.

A story I’ve found so inspiring illustrates this. It is about Christ Jesus on a ship in a storm (see Matthew 8:23-26). The others on the boat were afraid, but Jesus had such understanding and faith in the power of God, who is boundlessly good, that he “arose, and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a great calm.”

This has helped me see peace and security as God-ordained, rather than volatile. And as God’s spiritual children, expressing God’s nature, all of us have an inherent dominion over feelings of inadequacy or fear that would keep us from doing what we need to do. God Himself is the source of our intelligence and harmony, and the ability to express it.

During those very busy days and weeks, I kept these ideas close in thought. As I did, I found I was able to accomplish the tasks at hand and do much more than just survive. The feeling of being overwhelmed lifted, and I felt a deeper poise and calm. And I saw more clearly than ever before that God is always supporting us with His power and ever-present love. This keeps us well “above water,” even when circumstances seem overwhelming.

Adapted from the April 4, 2018, Christian Science Daily Lift podcast and an article in the June 2016 issue of The Christian Science Journal.

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Viewfinder

Slow-moving disaster

Jamm Aquino/Honolulu Star-Advertiser/AP
Lava continues to overrun Hookupu Street May 7 in Pahoa, Hawaii. Hawaii's Kilauea volcano has destroyed homes and spewed lava hundreds of feet into the air, leaving evacuated residents unsure how long they might be displaced.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( May 9th, 2018 )

David Clark Scott
Audience Engagement Editor

Come back tomorrow: We’re working on a story about an amateur environmentalist’s quest to save what may be the world’s cutest sea creature: the piglet squid.

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