2019
June
14
Friday

“I’d take it.”

With those words President Donald Trump seemed to say he would accept foreign government help in his 2020 campaign.

Talking to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, Mr. Trump said he’d be fine with receiving incriminating information on his opponent from Russia or another U.S. adversary. He wouldn’t report that to the FBI unless he decided there was “something wrong,” he said. On Friday, on “Fox & Friends,” he said he “absolutely” would report it, but only after he looked at the information first.

It’s illegal to accept an offer of something of value to a campaign from another country. Mr. Trump did not so much hold himself above the law as wave the law away. Probably every member of Congress has had meetings about foreign info, he said.

That’s highly unlikely. Candidates have long avoided association with foreign governments in the United States due to law, history, and strong national political norms.

Why are foreign contacts suspect? Because other countries have their own interests at heart, not America’s.

If they offer “help,” they want to influence U.S. actions for their own purposes. If a winning candidate keeps that aid secret, they end up with leverage over a person in a position of political trust.

Defending against such contacts thus protects the integrity of not just the government, but also every citizen’s vote.

“Democracy happens when people use a legitimate process to select leaders from among its citizens. If people from another country influence the selection of leaders, the sovereignty of the democracy is eroded,” tweeted George Mason University political scientist Jennifer Victor in response to Mr. Trump’s remarks.

Now to our five stories for today, which include a look at what role the humble cow might play in the push to save America’s grasslands, and a story on whether ecotourism has a place in Cuba’s economic future.

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1. Where bison once roamed, prairie revives under cow hoofs

Often agricultural and environmental interests can be at odds. On the northern Great Plains, though, ranchers increasingly find that restoring native grasslands can benefit cattle and wildlife alike.

Peter
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
A cow grazes in grasslands outside town on June 3 in Obert, Nebraska. Many acres of prairie grasslands have been converted into crop fields – such as the one in the background of this photo.

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In the northern Great Plains, a new breed of rancher is restoring prairie pasture that had been plowed under to grow crops. This grassland restoration is not only environmentally sound, improving water retention and sequestering carbon in the soil; it can also improve ranchers’ profits.

At a minimum, a healthy prairie creates better feed for their cattle. For some ranchers, it has allowed them to diversify into ecotourism. This switch requires them to pay attention to wildlife habitat and health as well as the condition of the grass. Helped by environmentalists in a sometimes uneasy alliance, the ranchers are finding more flexible ways to stay on their land.

Says Sarah Sortum, whose family cattle ranch now attracts tourists to their land: “The biggest difference from just managing for grass is managing for that diversity, because we realize that everything has value now ​– everything from the [flowering] forbs that we have out here, the wildflowers, to what they support.”

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Where bison once roamed, prairie revives under cow hoofs

Jim Faulstich drives through a landscape as stark as brown and green.

On the left of the road lies a field of tan earth and stalk residue ​– cropland that is still unplanted because of the pools of water in the low spots. On the right lies his green pasture. It has less water, and what pools exist are nearly covered over with lush new grass that means extra feed for the cattle.

“Compare that picture right there,” says the Volga rancher. “If it takes crop insurance, government payments to keep people afloat [on the cropland on the left], how is that a sustainable approach?” In places, his own grassland is so thick with pintail ducks, deer, and other wildlife that it seems in almost constant movement as his car rolls by.

Slowly, a prairie restoration movement is gaining momentum here in the Great Plains. After decades of plowing up native grasslands to plant crops, some ranchers are moving in the other direction. Helped by environmentalists in a sometimes uneasy alliance, they are restoring prairie pasture, which not only improves water retention and sequesters carbon in the soil, but can also improve their profits by creating better feed, allowing them to brand and sell their beef directly to consumers, or through ecotourism.

“I’m guardedly optimistic that we will see continued growth in that [revival] as the tourist business grows,” says Rick Edwards, director of the Center for Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska. “There’s a lot of learning that has to happen for us to do it well.”

This new breed of ranchers faces formidable odds. Conversion of the Plains ​– one of the world’s largest remaining grasslands ​– to cropland continues. As of 2017, nearly a third of the northern Great Plains, a swath of land running from central Nebraska to southern Saskatchewan and Alberta, had been converted. In that year alone, more than half a million acres were plowed under. The silver lining: The rate of conversion slowed considerably compared with 2016 in every state except here in South Dakota. It’s not clear why. Also there was a pickup in cropland that had gone back to grass, although it’s not certain that will be a permanent switch.

Ranching to preserve the grasslands requires new modes of thinking.

“We’re getting to understand how important healthy grasslands are,” says Leo Barthelmess, a rancher outside Malta, Montana, and president of the Ranchers Stewardship Alliance. For him, a high priority is making sure that his cattle do not overgraze an area, which means frequently moving the cows. When his father started ranching in the area in 1964, he moved cattle 10 times a year. Now, Mr. Barthelmes moves them 100 times a year, so “the grass has the opportunity to regrow.”

Searching for nesting areas

The aha moment for Sarah Sortum, whose family diversified from strictly a ranching operation to an ecotourism business, came when she went searching for nesting areas of the greater prairie chicken on the family ranch. On the northern end, she heard their call and other birdsongs all over; on the southern end, “I didn’t hear anything,” she recalls. “I didn’t hear chickens; I didn’t hear grouse; I didn’t hear all the other little birds I was supposed to be hearing.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Puccoon wildflowers grow on the grasslands at ecotourism entrepreneur Sarah Sortum's ranch on June 4 in Burwell, Nebraska.

She took her father out to listen: “His eyes got bigger. He says, ‘Oh. Oh!” An invasive red cedar, far more prevalent on the southern side of the ranch, was providing perches for birds that preyed on the ground-nesting prairie chicken and grouse. For years, getting rid of the trees had been a low priority for the family. Now that the birds were bringing tourists to the farm, removing the nonnative trees became a top priority.

“Before our tourism ... we just managed for grass, because that’s how we make money” ​– feeding grass to cattle, says Ms. Sortum. “Now ... the biggest difference from just managing for grass is managing for that diversity, because we realize that everything has value now ​– everything from the [flowering] forbs that we have out here, the wildflowers, to what they support.”

What changed Mr. Faulstich was the farm crisis of the 1980s. “I was either done or I was going to change,” he says. A typical cow-calf operator, he began looking into holistic management and realized the importance of preserving the health of the prairie. His son-in-law, with whom he ranches, is carrying on the tradition and has already converted some fields from cropland to prairie.

It’s this kind of mental shift that has environmentalists excited.

“I’m hearing from ranchers that are using [holistic management],” says Martha Kauffman, managing director of World Wildlife Fund’s Northern Great Plains program. “They’re making a whole lot more money. They’re able to have more animals on their ranch. [On the Plains] there’s been a negative story about loss and depopulation. But I think there’s a really exciting story about conservation. I’m thrilled!”

Tension over cows

The rancher-environmentalist relationship gets bumpy sometimes.

“We’re having a standoff right now with World Wildlife Fund,” says Mr. Faulstich. Although the environmental group acknowledges the role cattle can play in maintaining the prairie, much as the bison did until a little over a century ago, it also urges consumers to eat less meat because of the environmental harm cattle can cause ​– from eroding soils to discharging methane, a greenhouse gas. That’s an affront to Mr. Faulstich, for whom cattle are not only an economic lifeline but also part of a long and positive Great Plains culture.  

Others take a more nuanced position, emphasizing the areas where ranchers and environmentalists can work together to preserve the prairie.

“Environmentalists and ranchers have frequently been opponents and seen each other as enemies,” says Mr. Edwards of the Center for Great Plains Studies. “Through this kind of strategy, they can see that they have common interests ​– not the same interests, but there’s an overlap.”

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Patterns

Tracing global connections

2. In Sudan, blast of Arab ‘winter’ freezes spirit of Arab Spring

A country may push toward significant political change only to find that its more powerful neighbors have other ideas – and the clout to impose them.

Peter

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Are the prospects for a transition to civilian democracy shrinking in Sudan? The political events unfolding there could become a defining moment in a new Arab “winter.”

This week’s signs of U.S. reengagement could yet conceivably tilt things in favor of reform. But two months after popular protest ended the 30-year military rule of President Omar al-Bashir, an array of counterforces – a murderous crackdown by Sudanese troops, a shutdown of the internet, and the support of key Arab states for continued military rule – has changed the landscape.

Those states have sought to thwart peaceful civilian pressure on the Transitional Military Council that replaced Mr. Bashir. They have backed a veteran of the violent janjaweed militia whose troops have been behind arrests, beatings, rapes, and killings of demonstrators in Khartoum.

The African Union weighed in with the extraordinary action of suspending Sudan, but to little effect. The European Union, meanwhile, voiced support for “civilian authority,” but has kept a low profile in the interest of not repeating the influx of refugees from Africa in 2015.

The protest leaders’ options are increasingly circumscribed. The main roadblock remains: the reluctance of the military, with key Arab support, to hand over power.

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In Sudan, blast of Arab ‘winter’ freezes spirit of Arab Spring

There are two kinds of weather these days in Khartoum, the Nile-side capital of Sudan. For the meteorologists, it’s the start of summer, with temperatures already pushing above 100. But the political events unfolding there – nearly a decade after the Arab Spring protests that briefly promised a shift away from Middle East dictatorship – could become a defining moment in a new Arab Winter.

The political future of Sudan, on the northeastern flank of Africa across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia, still hangs in the balance. And after months of a fairly hands-off approach, this week’s signs of a reengagement by Washington could yet conceivably tilt things in favor of reform. 

But two months after a crescendo of popular protest forced an end to the 30-year military rule of President Omar al-Bashir, an array of counterforces – a murderous crackdown earlier this month by Sudanese troops, hundreds of arrests, a shutdown of the internet, and above all the support of key Arab states for continued military rule – has been shrinking the prospects of a transition to civilian democracy. 

From the outset, the protesters were determined to learn the lessons of the Arab Spring. Aware that the ouster of a single leader was no guarantee of lasting change, they’ve sought to deploy peaceful, patient pressure on the Transitional Military Council, which took over from Mr. Bashir to secure an agreed path to civilian rule.

But a powerful alliance of Arab rulers – Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman; the United Arab Emirates’ Prince Mohammed bin Zayed; and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, with Saudi and UAE support since leading a military coup in 2013 – has drawn a quite different lesson from the Arab Spring.

While willing to see Mr. Bashir go, they’ve put political support, money, and military assistance behind the leader of Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces, or RSF, Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo. A veteran of the Janjaweed militia who has been implicated in a catalog of atrocities in western Sudan’s Darfur region, he has been a military ally of the Saudis and UAE in the current war in Yemen. It is his troops who have been behind the recent arrests, beatings, rapes, and killings of demonstrators on the streets of Khartoum.

The sheer brutality of that crackdown did prompt the African Union to suspend Sudan until a “civilian-led transitional authority” was in place. But a sign of how little that dented the influence of the Saudi-UAE-Egypt axis came when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed traveled to Sudan in an effort to mediate a peaceful way forward. Two of the opposition leaders whom he met were arrested.

Nor have Sudan’s military rulers had to reckon with what, in years past, would almost surely have been a strong international voice in favor of the protesters: the European Union. The EU did respond to the bloodshed by calling for the Transitional Military Council “to respect people’s right to express their concerns” and reiterating support for the “rapid transfer of power to a civilian authority.” But otherwise, it has kept a low profile. Its overriding concern has been to retain the working relationship it established with the Sudanese government and military under Mr. Bashir – aimed at avoiding any repeat of the huge, politically unsettling influx of refugees from Africa into Europe in 2015.

The protest leaders’ options since the crackdown have been limited. They’ve been unable to risk further major demonstrations, with RSF troops patrolling the streets. Their main protest site, near military headquarters, has been razed. And one of the Arab Spring’s most potent organizational tools – the internet – has been effectively shut down.

Their initial response was to call a general strike, declaring that “peaceful resistance by civil disobedience” was “the fastest and most effective way to topple the military council.” But with new arrests raising questions of how long, and how widely, it could be sustained, they responded to a further African mediation effort by suspending the strike, with the military council agreeing to reopen negotiations on a transition to civilian power. 

The problem is that so far at least, the main roadblock remains: the reluctance of the military, with key Arab support, to hand over power.

That’s why the new U.S. engagement is potentially significant. Having condemned the violence against the protesters, the State Department this week named former Obama administration Sudan envoy Donald Booth as its point man on the crisis, and sent him to Khartoum along with Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Tibor Nagy. That could provide fresh momentum for resumed negotiations.

Still, the answer to whether that will mean movement toward a handover of power will come from elsewhere, in contacts with the Sudanese military’s outside backers – above all Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

No Arab leaders have closer ties, political and personal, with the Trump administration than Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed. Both are partners in the administration’s overarching Mideast goal of reining in Iran. Both are major purchasers of U.S. weaponry. And both have been opposed to any hint of a new “Arab Spring” in Khartoum.

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3. Russian tech giant Yandex takes rare stand against state snooping

The primacy of Russia’s security state is beginning to crimp the global growth of the country’s information technology sector. That could foretell hard choices for the government over what it will prioritize.

Peter
Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
Passengers look at their smartphones as they ride a bus in Moscow on May 16.

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In early June, when the FSB security agency gave Russian internet giant Yandex 10 days to surrender the encryption keys for its main services, the company appeared to balk. That is highly unusual in the security state that is Russia.

Under Russian law, internet companies have to provide access to state security services upon request, but Yandex said the keys that the FSB sought were a step too far, granting more than the law requires. In a further unusual step, a deputy prime minister backed Yandex publicly, arguing that the tech company – Russia's largest – must be protected. The debate highlights the tension between traditional security demands and the hopes of at least some state officials that Russia’s most important global company should not be hobbled by credibility-wrecking collaboration with secret services.

“The security services want more levers of control, and Yandex is going to be saddled with more obligations,” says Sarkis Darbinyan, who works for a digital media watchdog. “Many people are going to decide that Yandex can no longer be a safe service for the exchange of personal or comparative information. Users will leave.”

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Russian tech giant Yandex takes rare stand against state snooping

Russia has always been some version of a national security state, in which individuals, companies, and other group interests are expected to unquestioningly submit to the needs and demands of state agencies.

So, most experts say they were surprised it was even reported publicly this month that the Federal Security Service (FSB) had demanded that digital services giant Yandex, Russia’s largest company, hand over its encryption keys to comply with the country’s increasingly tough internet laws.

As surprising, if not more so, was that Yandex seemed to resist the FSB’s demands – with the backing of some government officials. Though the debate has now moved out of the public sphere, for a brief moment the fault lines were laid bare between traditional security demands and the hopes of at least some state officials that Russia’s most important global company should not be hobbled by credibility-wrecking collaboration with secret services.

“Yandex moved very fast to create the impression that the problem had been solved, and that the privacy of its users would be protected,” says Alexei Mukhin, director of the Center for Political Information, a Moscow-based think tank. “I don’t believe it has actually been solved. It’s a very complicated issue, and one that deeply affects the core of Yandex’s business model, which is to ensure privacy for users.”

FSB vs. Yandex

Yandex operates under a business model roughly similar to that of Google, offering email, search engine, navigation, commercial applications, and other digital services. It is incorporated in the Netherlands, but it maintains much of its infrastructure in Russia and has most of its customers in the Russian-speaking countries of the former Soviet Union. Experts say it has no choice but to comply with Russia’s ever-toughening internet security laws.

Yet in early June, when the FSB gave the company 10 days to surrender the encryption keys for its main services, Yandex appeared to balk.

“The law talks about providing information ‘necessary to decode messages,’ which does not entail a demand for [encryption] keys to be handed over which are needed for decoding all of the traffic,” Yandex said in a statement to the Russian media. “We consider it important to observe the balance between security and user privacy, and also to take into account the principles of equal regulation for all market participants.”

Even more surprisingly, Deputy Prime Minister Maxim Akimov, on behalf of the Russian government, stepped in to back the company’s apparent defiance. “Yandex is very important for the national and even global economy,” he told the Interfax agency. “We should do everything in our power to ensure that business entities that maintain Russia’s leadership in a number of critical areas don’t suffer in any way.”

Yandex is not alone among global digital giants in finding itself being assailed by lawmakers and governments seeking to bring them to heel in pursuit of national and geopolitical goals. Last month Google was compelled to stop much of its cooperation with the Chinese telecom Huawei amid the Trump administration’s escalating trade war with China. The U.S. and some other Western governments cite security concerns in cracking down on Huawei. Other digital giants like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube take measures to restrict accessibility to their services by alleged agents of foreign propaganda, disinformation, or extremist speech.

“There are different points of view about this at the top, but in Russia those who think that national security is the top priority are stronger and will likely prevail,” says Alexei Kondaurov, a former KGB general turned opposition politician. “It’s already been made clear that IT companies need to settle the issue of cooperation with the state. Of course there will need to be a compromise. The special services will insist they are not fighting dissidents, but protecting the country from terrorism. Nobody is going to dispute the need for that,” he adds.

Russia’s IT sector

Roskomnadzor, Russia’s state communications watchdog, has already suffered a certain amount of humiliation in its failure to force the messaging app Telegram to provide backdoor access to security services. In fact, Telegram appears to be more popular than ever among Russians, and many people say they get most of their daily information from the multitude of unfettered news channels that it hosts.

Telegram’s founder, Pavel Durov, took to his own personal channel last week to promise that he will create a new, censorship-free news aggregator to compete with Yandex, as the Russian giant struggles with increasing state encroachment. He warned that official interference threatens to cripple Russia’s hitherto growing IT sector, and hand its business over to the Western-based companies.

Russian law prohibits companies from revealing the extent of their cooperation with the state. Yandex will need to navigate carefully if it wants to convince its users that their data is not being shared with Russian security agencies, says Sarkis Darbinyan, legal officer for Roskomsvoboda, a grassroots digital freedom watchdog.

“The security services want more levers of control, and Yandex is going to be saddled with more obligations,” he says. “Many people are going to decide that Yandex can no longer be a safe service for the exchange of personal or comparative information. Users will leave. Just the fact that this piece of news has broken, that Yandex shares data due to these dubious Russian laws, is bound to hurt the reputation of Russia’s strongest company and damage its competitiveness in the world.”

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4. Why Cuba’s zip lines and B&B’s have fallen on hard times

A look at ecotourism in Cuba provides a window on larger forces at work on the island. These small-scale ventures – many the result of economic reforms – show the ripple effect from a tougher U.S. stance on Cuba.

Peter
Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
Visitors listen to live music in the welcome center of Las Terrazas, a biosphere reserve that is a popular tourist destination. Las Terrazas, however, has not been immune to Cuba's recent shifts in tourism numbers: In 2016, Las Terrazas welcomed 45,000 foreign visitors, and in 2018, it attracted only 40,000 visitors, including local Cubans.

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At Baños del San Juan, a swimming area west of Havana, Kassandra Koutsoftas notices that tourists, including herself, are there to appreciate environmental qualities that they don’t often see at home.

“Sometimes you have mountains and then a fence around it,” says the German architecture student, thinking back to her visit to the island of Cyprus. “But here,” she says, trailing off as she looks around at the vibrant scenery.

Ecotourism – visits to beautiful, exotic, and sometimes threatened natural environments – is an economic niche that Cubans say they are uniquely positioned to fill. But after years of growth during the Obama administration, small-scale tourism ventures in Cuba have struggled over the past year as President Donald Trump has moved to restrict U.S. travel to the island. Even though his administration says that newly announced restrictions are part of an effort to keep U.S. tourism dollars out of the hands of “the Cuban regime,” the travel cuts may actually fall hardest on the island’s fledgling private economy.

“The tourism industry was booming in Cuba,” says Ricardo Torres, an economist at the University of Havana. But “now we have this contradiction.”

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Why Cuba’s zip lines and B&B’s have fallen on hard times

Idalmis González Pérez wants more Americans swinging from her trees.

On a balmy afternoon, dozens of children and parents in white helmets scramble up a flight of wooden steps wrapped around a tree, screaming out to one another in a variety of English and Spanish accents. Las Terrazas employees clip visitors to the wire cable one by one and give them a small push. Then they fly down a mile-long zip line, squealing as they speed over ravines, ferns, and lizards.

Like many of the other employees, Ms. González has lived and worked at Las Terrazas, a nature reserve and tourist destination west of Havana, her entire life, so she is used to touring strangers around her home. But over the past two years, Ms. González has watched fewer visitors soar above her head.

Recent hurricanes have affected tourism numbers in beach resort towns like Varadero, Cuba, but the tourism market in Las Terrazas has been hit by more than storms, says Ms. González.

“The media manipulates a lot about Cuba,” she says, “and I’m not the only one who thinks that.”

Ecotourism – visits to beautiful, exotic, and sometimes threatened natural environments – is an economic niche that Cubans say they are uniquely positioned to fill. The clear blue waters, dense jungles, and towering royal palms, which made Christopher Columbus proclaim the island “the most beautiful land I have ever seen” more than 500 years ago, are largely preserved today.

This kind of tourism benefits both the visitor and the host, say some Cubans: Where high-rise hotels and cruise ships often provide a canned vacation and can despoil the landscape, zip lines and nature walks are a positive visitor experience as well as a means of preserving nature.

“It is so much better to grow with quality,” says Roberto Perez Rivero, coordinator of the nature and community program at The Antonio Núñez Jiménez Foundation, one of the only environmental nonprofits on the island.

But, like many other aspects of modern Cuba, ecotourism is falling short of its potential. After years of rapid growth during the Obama administration, small-scale tourism ventures, such as Las Terrazas or Havana’s paladares (private restaurants) and casas particulares (private hotels or room rentals), have struggled over the past year in the face of President Donald Trump’s vows to restrict U.S. travel to the island.

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
Residents at Las Terrazas live in apartment buildings (foreground) while many overnight visitors stay in the only nearby hotel, Moka Hotel (background), which is known for its trees growing through the lobby. Las Terrazas is a biosphere reserve in western Cuba.

Now they’re likely entering even harder times given that Mr. Trump has followed through on his threat to push U.S.-Cuba travel back to pre-Obama levels. On June 4 the Trump administration announced a U.S. ban on cruise travel to Cuba and educational and cultural “people-to-people” visits to the island. These were the most common categories of permitted U.S. tourism in recent years.

The Trump administration says its reversal is part of an effort to keep U.S. tourism dollars out of the hands of “the Cuban regime.”

“Cuba continues to play a destabilizing role in the Western Hemisphere, providing a communist foothold in the region and propping up U.S. adversaries in places like Venezuela and Nicaragua,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in a statement announcing the travel curbs.

But Cubans on the island say the administration’s restrictions will produce something of an ironic result. Tourism is the largest – if only – mainstay of the country’s fledgling private economy. According to U.S. experts, perhaps half of the 600,000 Cubans who hold business licenses are involved in some manner with the tourist trade. Thus the new travel cuts may fall the hardest on the part of the Cuban economy the U.S. most wants to encourage – and on ordinary employees of that private sector such as Ms. González.

A paradox

Both Cuba’s environment and its economic reliance on tourism are products of the 1962 U.S. embargo, in which the United States fully stopped exports to Cuba and issued sanctions against other countries if they traded with the island.

The embargo, which is still in place today, has made it difficult for Cubans to get basic supplies, such as building materials, which in turn makes it difficult to keep up with tourists’ demands. At the same time, the embargo has kept Cuba’s environment more pristine than its trade-capable neighbors. The island doesn’t have much runoff pollution, for example, because it hasn’t been able to import fertilizer and pesticides in the first place.

That’s not to say that the environment and tourism in Cuba have been entirely symbiotic. Like many of its Caribbean neighbors, the country is subject to an ecotourism paradox: the more pristine the environment, the more visitors who want to experience it, thus decreasing its pristineness. The peninsula where Varadero is located, for example, is lined with white sand and turquoise waters – as well as all-inclusive resorts built so close to the beach that they cast shadows over the sea.

“Varadero, in a way, became a sacrifice area,” says Mr. Perez. “We started learning that it was hard to preserve things.”

Not everyone would agree with Mr. Perez. Many Cubans see the tourism industry – in all its forms – as synonymous with the country’s emerging private sector and economic potential.

Former President Raúl Castro liberalized select small businesses over the past decade, such as taxis, paladares, and casas particulares. These economic reforms, which largely serve the tourism industry, paralleled with a spike in visitors after former President Barack Obama traveled to Cuba in 2016, as part of his efforts to normalize relations between the two countries.

Between 2015 and 2017, the number of U.S. tourists had increased by almost fourfold and the number of tourists overall had increased by almost 1 million. The state-run tourism sector has injected $3 billion a year into the Cuban economy, and its private counterpart, fueled by casas particulares and paladares, has contributed about the same.

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
Varadero, a two-hour drive east of Havana, has become a popular vacation destination for tourists, drawn to the area's white beaches and clear water. The locale is scattered with all-inclusive resorts and the only 18-hole golf course in the country.

The private sector, which now provides jobs for as many as 4 in 10 working-age Cubans, has created economic opportunity unprecedented in the country since the 1959 revolution. Now it’s common, say locals, for taxi drivers to make more money than doctors. The average monthly salary for government jobs is about $20, which a taxi driver could make in a few hours shuttling tourists around Havana, or a paladar owner could make off one foreign couple at lunch.

Chicken and toilet paper

One Airbnb renter who declined to provide his name says that before Mr. Obama’s visit, he would host about three tourists a week in his three-bedroom apartment above the crowded Obispo Street in Old Havana. Visitors would typically stay for only a night or two, usually on their way to Mexico. Rarely were they American. But a few months after Mr. Obama’s visit, the renter says he would host three to four Americans each week, and they would stay for about five days. Cuba was no longer a layover. It was the destination.

Other things changed, too. The national news on television started talking about Cuba’s relationship with the U.S. in a positive way, says the Obispo Street renter, such as how the island started receiving chicken and toilet paper from the U.S.

“Obama came and told people the reality of Cuba, and everyone wants to come,” he adds. “Then Trump messes everything up.”

In 2017, Mr. Trump announced plans to tighten travel restrictions that had been loosened under Mr. Obama, making it difficult for Americans to travel to Cuba on their own.

During the first half of 2018, the number of U.S. travelers to Cuba (not including Cuban Americans) was down almost 24% from that period in 2017, a drop that Cuban officials and travel analysts have attributed to both Hurricane Irma and worry about the Trump administration’s prospective restrictions. However, figures began to tick up again during the first half of 2019.

Americans who did visit Cuba over the last year were likely to travel with tour groups or on cruise ships. The number of cruise ship passengers who came to Cuba in the first four months of this year was triple the figure for the same period last year.

But this often meant traveling in a way that cut out small businesses, like a three-bedroom apartment on Obispo Street. Tour groups are typically state-run, and the cruise ship companies typically dock in state ports, partner with state agencies, and book rooms in state hotels.

Michel Bernal, commercial director for Cuba’s Ministry of Tourism, said earlier this year that occupancy in Havana’s private bed-and-breakfasts dropped from near full capacity as Mr. Obama loosened restrictions to less than 45%, according to The Associated Press.

“The tourism industry was booming in Cuba,” says Ricardo Torres, an economist at the University of Havana. “There was a lot of money flowing into Cuban families. [But] now we have this contradiction.”

Ecotourism at a swimming area

At Baños del San Juan, a swimming area outside Las Terrazas, locals and tourists alike splash in the green water and picnic alongside its banks. Kassandra Koutsoftas, a German architecture student, notices a difference between local people and herself, sunbathing a few feet from the river. The locals visit the river to socialize, whereas tourists – like herself – are there to appreciate the environmental qualities that they don’t often see at home.

But the term “ecotourism” is hard to define, says Ms. Koutsoftas: You know it when you see it.

“Sometimes you have mountains and then a fence around it,” says Ms. Koutsoftas, thinking back to her visit to the island of Cyprus. “But here,” she says, trailing off as she looks around at the vibrant trees, grass, and water.

To many visitors, local people are a part of ecotourism. Stefan Bruins, a tourist from Amsterdam who is staying at Las Terrazas, came to the Baños because he heard that it is a beautiful place where the locals go.

“Ecotourism is anything that makes you feel connected with nature,” says Ms. González, the employee of Las Terrazas. “People who choose Las Terrazas choose real ecotourism.”

In the last years of the Obama administration, she says, Las Terrazas welcomed about 45,000 foreign visitors annually. In 2018, this number dropped to 40,000 visitors, including native Cubans.

Back on Obispo Street, the renter sits on a white plastic chair in a dark corner of the hallway, a cool relief from the afternoon Caribbean sun. He is angled toward the door in case anyone sees his sign on the street below and wanders up in need of a room. In the courtyard below the hallway, drying laundry hangs still in the breezeless afternoon. The renter’s three doors are also still, propped open. The rooms, modest with bare floors and striped sheets, are empty.

He’s now back to one American visitor each week, and there’s no more American chicken or toilet paper. Although the renter is frustrated, he still smiles because he loves speaking English, and it’s rare now that he gets to practice.

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Books

5. This summer’s buzziest book club read: The Mueller report

For many, the 448-page Mueller report is intimidating – and divisive. One way to get Americans to read, think critically, and engage with others on the report? Book clubs. 

Peter

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Released to the public April 18, the Mueller Report became an instant bestseller. But buying the report is one thing, and reading it is another. In May, only 3% of Americans had actually read the report, and fewer than 25% had read any of it, according to a CNN poll. Even some leading members of Congress haven’t read the full report.

Now, organizations across the country, from fact-checking websites to advocacy firms, are encouraging Americans to read the report by creating Mueller report book clubs. The goal: to motivate members to stay informed, think critically, and remain politically engaged. 

Barb Nelson, a farmer in Red Oak, Iowa, comes from a family of eight kids, split evenly between political parties. She’s a Democrat and started a book club to motivate herself and others to read the 448-page report – and to connect with her sister, a Republican. 

“Read it and discuss it with other people,” she says. “Unless you start reaching out and listening to other people, this stalemate is going to continue. ... We need to reach out to everybody, of all political stripes.”

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This summer’s buzziest book club read: The Mueller report

Barb Nelson, a farmer in Red Oak, Iowa, comes from a family of eight kids, split evenly between political parties. A confirmed Democrat, she has one particularly Republican sister, and while they’re close, they don’t talk politics. That is, they didn’t until Ms. Nelson started her book club.

She and a group of friends recently launched a reading group for former special counsel Robert Mueller’s legalese-laden 448-page report. As she was reading the report, Ms. Nelson decided to reach out to her sister and share some of her thoughts. She says she realized the only way to make progress was to try to understand other viewpoints.

“Until we listen to people and find out who they are, we’re not going to find common ground,” Ms. Nelson says. 

Her club, in fact, is part of a larger effort to make the Mueller report more accessible. Organizations across the country, from fact-checking websites to advocacy firms, are encouraging Americans to read the report by creating communities of fellow readers. For many of the book clubs, the goal is to motivate members to stay informed, think critically, and remain politically engaged. 

Ms. Nelson and her friends launched the club after coming across Muellerbookclub.com, an online forum started by the progressive activist group Public Citizen in Washington, D.C. Even after spreading the word in person, online, in local newspapers, and over the radio, Ms. Nelson thought they’d be lucky if 10 showed up to the first meeting.

They got almost 25 – some driving nearly 50 miles to the Red Oak coffee shop where they meet.

“It’s the community support,” Ms. Nelson says, noting their club includes mostly Democrats but at least one Republican. “One of our members said today that … without the group, they probably couldn’t [read it]. They really value hearing the community talk about it.”

Justin Hendrix, director of March for Truth, hatched the idea for Muellerbookclub.com with the nonprofit Public Citizen soon after the report was released this April. Open to everyone, the online club split the report into four sections and launched a month-long series. Beginning May 13, the group hosted Monday webinars on the week’s reading, featuring guests from House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler to journalist Gloria Steinem. It received so much support – more than 20,000 viewers some weeks – that Mr. Hendrix and his colleagues are now looking past the original end date, trying to continue their momentum.

“The thing we were surprised at was just how quickly others were willing to jump in and lend a hand,” he says.

Released to the public April 18, the Mueller report became an instant bestseller – even with free versions posted online. But buying the report is one thing, and reading it is another. In May, only 3% of Americans had actually read the report, and fewer than 25% had read any of it, according to a CNN poll. Even some leading members of Congress, The Washington Post reported at the end of May, hadn’t read the full report.

On air June 12, Fox News anchor Shepard Smith said the Mueller report was something “everyone in America should read. Everyone.”

Whether the report exonerates the president is left to personal opinion. What’s certain is the interest it’s generated – inspiring live readings from San Francisco to New York, free online audio versions, podcasts, and of course, book clubs.

In a public statement last month, Mr. Mueller cautioned people to let the report speak for itself, later adding that the report is his testimony.

Angie Holan, editor of PolitiFact, a nonpartisan website devoted to fact-checking politicians’ statements, says Mr. Mueller’s press conference felt like a direct appeal for Americans to read the report themselves. PolitiFact recently announced its own Mueller report book club. Ms. Holan says the goal is to support people who want to read it but don’t feel comfortable doing so alone. 

“The idea is that you let people interact with the text on their own terms, but you provide some guidance to help them get started and to help them continue reading. Because it’s not easy for everybody,” she says.

Politifact plans to publish materials in its newsletter as the book club progresses. By the end of their eight-week series, Ms. Holan says they hope to have an available template for similar clubs in the future. She has been surprised by the amount of public support they’ve received so far – both from current subscribers and the 2,000 who joined soon after the club launched June 6.

Similar responses have been especially encouraging to Jonah Minkoff-Zern, co-director for Public Citizen’s Democracy Is For People Campaign and a colleague of Mr. Hendrix on the book report project.

“It’s nice validation that people really do care and want to take action on this and want to be part of a response,” he says.

People around the country have been writing letters to their local newspapers and telling him about their own chapters, he adds – like Ms. Nelson.

“Oh my gosh, I feel like I’m back in college,” says Ms. Nelson about the weekly readings.

She acts as the moderator for her group and is encouraging members to engage beyond the book club. Take it home, she recommends, tell the neighbors, talk to strangers.

“Read it and find out for yourself. Read it and discuss it with other people,” she says. “Unless you start reaching out and listening to other people, this stalemate is going to continue. ... We need to reach out to everybody, of all political stripes.”

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The Monitor's View

Robots: Job killers or co-workers?

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Will a robot snatch away your job? Or will you learn to love intelligent machines as co-workers?

In today’s quickly evolving workplace a little of either may be true. Unskilled laborers in particular would have their jobs handed to machines that never needed to take a day off, a vacation, or even a coffee break.

That’s still a concern. But humans have also proved resilient, possessing a wide array of fine motor skills and human judgment that are difficult to reproduce in machines.

Still, more and more robots are scurrying around places like gigantic Amazon distribution centers, where they deliver packages to chutes matched to the right delivery ZIP code. But humans are still needed to pack the actual boxes, which involves choices that still stump a robot, but are easily handled by a human.

Observers worry that the historically low 3.6% jobless rate in the United States is masking this robot revolution convulsing the workplace. Millions of workers will need to learn new skills to keep their jobs or qualify for new ones.

How to prepare to work alongside robots is a challenge that individuals, educators, employers, and governments are going to face at an ever-quickening pace.

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Robots: Job killers or co-workers?

Will a robot snatch away your job? Or will you learn to love intelligent machines as co-workers?

In today’s quickly evolving workplace a little of either may be true. Robots were once seen as workers that would free humans from the “three D” jobs: dull, dirty, and dangerous. Unskilled laborers would have their jobs handed to machines that never needed to take a day off, a vacation, or even a coffee break.

That’s still a concern. But humans have also proved resilient, possessing a wide array of fine motor skills that have proved difficult to reproduce in machines. While robots might operate using one sensor, perhaps a kind of vision, humans can tap five senses to assess a situation (does that thing smell funny?), as well as a complex set of memories and experiences. When robots can catch up is anyone’s guess.

Still, more and more robots are scurrying around places like gigantic Amazon distribution centers, where they deliver packages to chutes matched to the right delivery ZIP code. Theirs paths as they roll about the warehouse floor are based on complex algorithms that maximize efficiency. 

But for now, at least, humans are needed to pack the actual boxes, which might contain several items of different sizes, shapes, weights, and fragility. That’s a Rubik’s Cube of packing choices that still stumps a robot, but is easily handled by a human.

As artificial intelligence advances, robots will move into higher-skilled jobs that seem especially human. This spring, for example, minor league baseball is experimenting with a “robo-umpire” called TrackMan that calls balls and strikes behind home plate. (No more fans yelling at a human ump “Get a pair of glasses!) 

Journalists have fancied themselves pretty safe from robo-job stealing. But RADAR, a robot news writer in Britain, researches and writes stories based on templates created by humans, producing about 8,000 local news stories a month. Humans are still needed to double-check the work, just as editors do with human journalists today.

Observers worry that the historically low 3.6% jobless rate in the United States is temporarily masking this robot revolution convulsing the workplace. In April, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimated 14% of the jobs in its 36 member nations are at “high risk” of being eliminated by automation while another 32% will undergo major changes in how they are done. Millions of workers young and old will need to learn new skills to keep their jobs or qualify for new ones.

How to prepare to work alongside robots and other manifestations of artificial intelligence is a challenge that individuals, educators, employers, and governments are going to be facing at an ever-quickening pace.

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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.

Father’s Day every day

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Fathering isn’t confined to dads and kids; everyone can feel and express the love of our divine Father, which inspires, strengthens, and heals.

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Father’s Day every day

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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Every single Father’s Day for the last ten years, like clockwork, I’ve gotten a phone call from a kid I once coached on a sports team. Actually, this kid is a grown man now. He’s explained that during those years we were on that team together, although he knew that I was mainly focused on coaching, my main contribution for him was as a father figure. I’ll tell you, I always just beam when I receive his call.

My own dad used to encourage me often. Though he has since passed on, I realize my life continues to overflow with a spirit of fathering. In fact, I am constantly finding myself on both the receiving and the giving ends of it. When stressed or doubtful, I often feel a reassuring, fatherly encouragement and realize it is because I’ve learned that fathering care, if pure and true, actually comes from a divine source. It’s a sense of love so deep it overflows in my heart and feels so pure that it could come only from God, divine Love itself.

This true Parent, whom Jesus called “Our Father” (see Matthew 6:9) is infinite Love and Spirit and is never absent, even for a few minutes. In “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” Monitor founder Mary Baker Eddy writes, “Father-Mother is the name for Deity, which indicates His tender relationship to His spiritual creation” (p. 332).

Our relation to our Father is as His spiritual offspring, the very expression of His being. Therefore God’s beautiful qualities are always here for all of us, male and female, to both receive and express. These spiritual qualities are empowering gifts such as joy, tenderness, and strength.

To recognize and appreciate the wonderful qualities God expresses through us honors our divine Father. One of the Ten Commandments is “Honour thy father and thy mother” (Exodus 20:12). To me, this goes beyond appreciation for and obedience to Mom and Dad. It includes being deeply grateful for our divine Parent, God, whose love and care are so constant, so present, so wonderful.

And through this kind of gratitude we become more receptive to our Father’s encouraging, comforting, healing inspiration. I’ve really come to appreciate how the Bible describes God as a Father with “no variableness” (James 1:17). This Father never takes a break. He is always here for us consistently and without variation.

I experienced this years ago when a colleague misrepresented my work to people in upper management, and as a result my opportunities to contribute were drastically curtailed. Over and over I turned to God in prayer, seeking His loving, patient encouragement. And I would feel His strength inspiring and buoying me, reminding me that our divine Father does not leave us alone or uncared for.

As a result, I no longer felt helpless or deprived of good, and the day finally came when I was free of resentment. I knew that opportunities to serve God, to feel and express His qualities, would never run out. This has proved to be the case.

I believe that it’s Father’s Day anytime we’re conscious of living as examples of God’s unvarying fatherhood. It’s Father’s Day anytime we spot evidence of God’s loving fatherhood expressed by another person. It’s Father’s Day whenever we gratefully acknowledge everyone’s real identity as God’s spiritual creation.

This coming Sunday, I’ll be ready for that happy phone call. And every day I will humbly seek and feel the Father’s love for me – which we all can do. I’ll express fatherhood with my own kids, and even with people to whom I’m not related. Those opportunities come often – and I guess that makes sense since we all are cherished members of our divine Father’s universal family.

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Viewfinder

A museum of one’s own

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Just as I walked up to photograph the joyful, colorful quirkiness of Randyland, a door opened and a man with platinum hair, his clothes covered in paint splatters from top to bottom, beckoned me and several other visitors inside. We entered a workshop overflowing with ongoing projects and open cans of paint in every color. We were in the presence of the mastermind of Randyland: outsider artist Randy Gilson. He proceeded to share his latest creations with an infectious enthusiasm and energy. I couldn’t help but smile. He talked about his difficult upbringing without embarrassment – bullied at school, faced with homelessness, and told he was stupid and worthless. But he found his way through art – and love. 'Do not walk in anyone’s shadow,' he says. 'Find your own purpose. Your struggles are your greatest teachers.' Mr. Gilson’s purpose has turned out to be this gift to the community: a free public art museum designed to bring happiness by turning waste into wonders. Mr. Gilson takes a photo with visitors. – Melanie Stetson Freeman
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte and Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( June 17th, 2019 )

Come back Monday, when we’ll have a piece about a Cambodian woman who is trying to plant the seeds of environmental stewardship on a remote Cambodian island.

Also, a quick note: Thursday’s story on one of Louisiana’s last abortion clinics mischaracterized the nature of Dr. Doe’s private practice. It is an OB-GYN practice.

Monitor Daily Podcast

June 14, 2019
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