2021
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Monitor Daily Podcast

July 23, 2021
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TODAY’S INTRO

This trucker blocked traffic. Mainers gave him lobster.

As cooped-up Americans have burst into the great outdoors this summer, there’s been one predictable, irritating side effect: traffic. 

Interstates are jammed. A year of pandemic-limited travel has produced pent-up demand for vacation road trips. Which is why you’d think lots of people would be yelling at Mike Saxton.

Last week he and his Midwestern trucking crew hauled a giant prefab building into a Maine vacation area where roads were already packed. And got stuck.

Twice.

The first time, the trailer hauling his heavy cargo bottomed out when trying to make a sharp left onto a bridge over the Penobscot River. The second time, Mr. Saxton had made it onto Mount Desert Island – home of Acadia National Park, one of the most-visited parks in the country – when he got stuck at another sharp turn.

The delays surely made some people mad. But that’s not the whole story.

The cargo was a special building to house medical equipment at the Bar Harbor hospital. As it crept along the coast, social media posts closely followed its progress and hailed the crew’s efforts to keep going, according to the Bangor Daily News. People offered food when they were stuck. In Bar Harbor Mr. Saxton got an ocean-view room, a lobster dinner, and lots of offers of breakfast.

And a GoFundMe page to bring Mr. Saxton back to Bar Harbor under less stressful conditions raised $2,600 in a few days. “Let’s get him here for a proper vacation!” said organizer Molly Damon.

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Meet the young mom who became the face of Belarus’ democracy movement

What happens when your spouse’s imprisonment thrusts you into the political spotlight – with expectations you will carry on the fight? In an interview, this young mother shares how she found the strength to challenge a dictator and knock on the doors of the powerful in Washington. 

Peter

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Until last year, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was a young, stay-at-home mom. But as she told Linda Feldmann in an interview in Washington this week, that changed when her husband, a leading opposition presidential candidate in Belarus, was thrown into prison.

Within weeks, she was the face of the country’s pro-democracy movement, running for president herself and becoming the vessel for citizens’ hopes after decades under strongman Alexander Lukashenko. His claim that he won last August’s vote sparked unprecedented protests and a harsh crackdown.

Her journey has since taken her into exile, to the capitals of Europe, and now to Washington, where she met with top Biden administration officials, members of Congress, European diplomats, and the Belarusian diaspora. On display has been her compassion – seen as she posed for photos with children at a pro-democracy rally – and a steeliness required to carry the mantle of resistance for a country of 9.5 million people. 

She considers her visit a success, though she did not meet President Joe Biden. “I’m here on behalf of the Belarusian people, and we have never been accepted in the USA on such a level. It gave a strong signal to [us], to other countries, that the USA is with us.”

Meet the young mom who became the face of Belarus’ democracy movement

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Alejandro Alvarez/Sipa/AP
Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya speaks with her supporters at Freedom Plaza in Washington, D.C., on July 18, 2021.

Until last year, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was a stay-at-home mom with two young children, one with a disability. But that all changed when her husband, a leading opposition presidential candidate, was thrown into prison.

Within weeks, she became the face of Belarus’ pro-democracy movement, picking up his fight to take down what’s been called “Europe’s last dictatorship.” 

It may appear to be a quixotic effort, leading some to dub her the “Joan of Arc” of Belarus. But Ms. Tsikhanouskaya, 38 years old and living with her children in exile in Lithuania, remains undaunted. After all, the former English teacher has accomplished more than she probably dreamed in May 2020, when her husband, Sergei Tsikhanousky – a video blogger and vocal critic of Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko – was arrested, along with other opposition candidates. 

Ms. Tsikhanouskaya ran for president in her husband’s place, mounting a fierce campaign and becoming the vessel for Belarusians’ hopes and frustrations over Mr. Lukashenko’s repressive rule, now 27 years. He claims he won 80% of last August’s vote, sparking unprecedented protests, strikes, and mass arrests in the former Soviet republic. But some Belarusians still consider Ms. Tsikhanouskaya “president-elect.”

Who is this young woman, who has spent the past week in Washington meeting with top Biden administration officials, members of Congress, European diplomats, and members of the Belarusian diaspora? And how did she muster the resilience to carry the mantle of resistance for a country of 9.5 million people? 

In a Monitor interview Wednesday at the Willard Hotel, near the White House, Ms. Tsikhanouskaya spoke of how she learned to stop calling herself a “weak woman,” her time in Ireland as a “Chernobyl child,” her views on democracy, and her plans for the future.

David W Cerny/Reuters
Belarusians gather at the Old Town Square as they wait to meet with Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, in Prague, Czech Republic, June 7, 2021.

For one, she says, her plan was never to serve more than a short time as president – and still isn’t, if somehow the Lukashenko regime were to collapse. She describes herself as a transitional figure, who, had she been declared winner last August, would have freed the nation’s political prisoners and immediately held new elections. 

Perhaps that explains her answer to this question: Who are your role models for women in leadership? 

“I would like to name strong women, like Margaret Thatcher,” Ms. Tsikhanouskaya says. “But I think that my role model is Princess Diana. She was firm, but her biggest value was people.”  

“It was so important for her to communicate with ordinary people, to show kindness. My heart is crying about every person who is behind bars. It’s very difficult to work, you know, keeping this feeling inside. But I can’t do otherwise.” 

Ms. Tsikhanouskaya’s compassion came through Sunday at a pro-democracy rally of Belarusian Americans on Freedom Plaza in Washington. She posed for photos with children, including a little girl in a wheelchair.

Yet she also exhibits a steely determination, which has taken her to the capitals of Europe, and now to Washington, to push for tougher economic sanctions on the Belarusian regime. She met this week with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, and participated in the launch of the bipartisan Congressional Friends of Belarus Caucus. But she was not granted a meeting with President Joe Biden. 

When asked about that, she looks disappointed, but is reserved. “I have to answer diplomatically,” she says. “He is a busy person.”

[UPDATE: On July 28, Ms. Tsikhanouskaya was granted a quick “drop by” meeting with Mr. Biden at the White House. She had already left Washington, but was invited back. The Monitor’s coverage is here.]

Still, she says, her trip to Washington was a success from the very beginning. “I’m here on behalf of the Belarusian people, and we have never been accepted in the USA on such a level. It gave a strong signal to the Belarusian people, to other countries, that the USA is with us.” 

Following are more excerpts from Ms. Tsikhanouskaya’s Monitor interview, lightly edited for clarity.  

After your week in Washington, you’re heading to New York and California. Who is caring for your children (an 11-year-old boy, who was born with hearing loss, and a 5-year-old girl) while you are traveling? 

I have a friend who came to take care of them [in Lithuania] while I’m absent. My parents are in Belarus. 

Is it true that you were told to choose between your children and prison? 

It happened twice, first during the election campaign. I had a phone call, and the person told me that if you don’t stop doing this, you will be imprisoned, your children will be put in an orphanage. That moment was very stressful, and I hesitated. 

But I couldn’t betray the people who believed in me and who believed in my husband and who believed in changes in our country, and I decided to send my children to Lithuania and continue my campaign. But after the election, the next day I went to the Election Commission to give the document [stating that] we do not agree with the fraudulent elections, and there, high-ranked people, military people, gave me a choice: “You’re going to Lithuania to your children or you will be in prison for years and your children will be raised without you.” At that moment, my inner mother played, and I chose to join my children. 

What in your life has prepared you for this sudden, public role? 

I always considered myself a so-called weak woman, because I had a husband who took care of the whole family. I had to rehabilitate my child [help him deal with his near-deafness, including surgery], and my husband was doing everything, earning money to care for us. All those years, I looked at my husband as a strong person. He always was very purposeful. 

He was my teacher at that moment. Maybe women are initially very strong, but not usually put in circumstances when we can show our strength. And when I found myself facing those difficulties, this inner strength appeared. 

You met with former Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė, the first woman to hold that job. What was her advice?

She told me that you shouldn’t show your weakness. Even if everything is crying inside of you, stay firm. 

Of course I accepted her advice. I have had a very short political career, but I have had the best teachers ever. Presidents, prime ministers, I’m studying them during my visits, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel

What about your childhood? You spent some summers in rural Ireland in a program to help children from areas affected by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident. 

I grew up in a family that wasn’t interested in politics, because we were sure that nothing can be changed. We didn’t have an opportunity to communicate with other people, but I did visit Ireland a few times as a “Chernobyl child.” The dad influenced me a lot, and I had a chance to see that there are countries that live much better, where people are happy, where people are so free, and they have the right to say what they want.  

Our parents lived in the Soviet Union under that regime. Many in the older generation have never been abroad. But the new generation has had a chance to travel. The internet influenced a lot – we could see how other people live, and step by step, this desire to change our life for the better grew. 

How is your husband doing?

Today I communicated with [his lawyer]. She came out of the trial and said that he’s so strong, that he’s defending his rights, that he will never betray his values. She’s banned from talking about the trial itself. 

For the last 10 months, I suppose he is in solitary confinement. Oh my God, it’s very difficult. 

Women were central to last year’s campaign, first with your candidacy and the two other female candidates who united behind you, then in the protests led by “women in white” after the disputed result. Was that significant? 

It was very symbolic. And after the election, maybe women were inspired by our trio. When Lukashenko’s cronies detained so many men, and they were brutally beaten, our women felt this strength, and felt that now it’s our turn to go out to the streets. They became an inspiration for the rest of the country.

Maxim Guchek/BelTA/AP
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko addresses members of the national Olympic team in Minsk, Belarus. Belarus' authorities on July 19, 2021, raided offices of an independent newspaper and detained three of its journalists as part of a continuing crackdown on media outlets and civil society activists.

How do you keep in touch with the people of Belarus from exile? 

God bless the internet. We have, every day, Zoom conferences with doctors, workers, students, people of culture, sportsmen, pensioners. We are first of all inspiring each other. We get information from inside, what people are doing there. People on the ground ask for our help, or tell us what to do, what they want. 

Are you concerned for your safety, considering Russia’s poisoning of dissidents and especially after Belarus hijacked a Ryanair jet in May carrying young activist journalist Raman Pratasevich

The Lithuanian government provides me security. Of course I worry about my team, and all those activists who are in exile. If I thought only about my security, I wouldn’t do anything. But even if something happens to me, this movement will not stop and the regime understands this. They thought they could kidnap Raman Pratasevich and people would say he betrayed us, but we understand that he’s a hostage.

How do you define “democracy”? 

Democracy is responsibility – everyone’s. People in Belarus lived so many years under the pressure of the regime. Now democracy means that it’s your responsibility to decide the future of your country, it’s your responsibility to make our country more prosperous, and it’s your responsibility whom you will choose. That’s why we are calling for fair elections. Whoever will be the next president is the responsibility of the people.

Why don’t you want to be president, after gaining all this experience? 

Lukashenko and his regime are destroying the economy, and the new president will have to be a good manager with the right skills, with the education to understand all those processes. We have in Belarus many outstanding people who can do this. 

I have studied a lot, and I have good contacts all over the world now, and I could be useful for the country. Absolutely, I’m ready to be in politics, maybe in the human rights area. It’s not necessary to be president to be useful for your country.

Olympics have lockdown aura. But the narrative isn’t locked in.

Against a pandemic backdrop, the Summer Olympics in Tokyo are accompanied by no shortage of challenges. Yet the narrative of Tokyo isn’t predetermined – and the promise of internationalism and athleticism remain.

Peter
Naoki Ogura/Reuters
The celebration cauldron is lit during a torch kiss event at the Olympic torch relay celebration at Shiba Park in Tokyo on July 22, 2021.

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Since 1948, the Summer Olympics have kept to their quadrennial schedule – despite boycotts, scandals, and terrorist attacks. Past Games have only been canceled in wartime. So the postponed, public health-restricted Tokyo Games are unprecedented in the modern Olympic era.

Where many hoped the Games would showcase revival from Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster or even from the pandemic itself, instead spectators are banned and athletes face calls for social distancing. In polls, the Japanese public prefers canceling the Games, though support is rising.

“There’s a lot of voices out there that think the Olympics should not be going on,” says Patrick Cottrell, a political scientist at Linfield University in McMinnville, Oregon. “But on the other hand … [the Olympics are] the world’s kind of truly universal event.”

This year that sense of internationalism must adapt or risk fading. Yet for all the misgivings, the people of the host country are gamely and graciously helping hordes of visiting athletes and reporters navigate around the official venues. And narratives can shift as the athletes take center stage.

Sports expert Alan Tomlinson at the University of Brighton predicts record viewership. “I don’t think it’ll lose a global audience,” he says.

Olympics have lockdown aura. But the narrative isn’t locked in.

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After a four-month relay across Japan, the Olympic torch is finally burning in Tokyo. But it hasn’t arrived as planned. 

Efforts to ​combat the coronavirus pandemic have detoured the relay off public roads and replaced it with a series of discreet flame-lighting rituals. ​Nearly half of ​some​ 4​7 ​relay​ legs across the country​ were disrupted.​ 

For this symbol of endurance, and the Games it heralds, the journey resembles the destination. 

More than a year after its postponement, the delayed 2020 Olympics beg​an Friday with a closed-door spectacle​. Tokyo ​is​ again in a state of emergency​, and spectators​ have been banned.

All this highlights the central paradox of the Tokyo Games. The world has spent the last year and a half fighting COVID-19, reinforcing a sense of global unity – and the value of global celebrations. Yet​ public health protocols mean the Tokyo Games will be the most restricted on record. At once, these Games may feel like the most and least international of the modern era.

What was meant as a symbol of recovery – first from the Fukushima disaster in 2011, and later the pandemic – has instead become a reminder of how much recovery lies ahead. But as has always been the case​, the Olympics are a competition of narratives as much as they are a competition of athletes. Each Summer Games tells a story, and the story of the Tokyo Games may change by its end. ​This unprecedented Olympics ​may become a symbol of resilience for the international community.

“There’s a lot of voices out there that think the Olympics should not be going on,” says Patrick Cottrell, professor of political science and an expert on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) at Linfield University in McMinnville, Oregon. “But on the other hand … the degree of internationalism [at the Olympics] is the world’s kind of truly universal event.”

One for the books

Past Olympics have only been canceled in wartime. Since 1948, each Summer Games has taken place on its quadrennial schedule – despite boycotts, scandals, and terrorist attacks.

In normal years the Games are akin to a global house party, mixing cultures from around the world through a common love of sport, says David Rowe, professor emeritus at Western Sydney University’s Institute for Culture and Society. That’s symbolized not only by the athletes but also by the attentive crowds, filled with fans, friends, and families from all nationalities.

This year that sense of internationalism must either adapt or risk fading.

Athletes must socially distance and depart Japan within 48 hours of elimination or their competition’s end. Hugging, high-fiving, handshakes, and sharing meals together are discouraged. The sometimes bacchanalian Olympic Village will function like a quarantine zone. To limit contact, winning athletes will put on their own medals.

To many like Professor Rowe, who signed a petition to cancel the Games, these restrictions prevent the very interactions that make the Olympics worthwhile. 

“In its own terms the international dialogue, coming together, festival of humanity that the Olympics should be just cannot happen under these conditions,” he says. 

Polling data consistently show a majority of the Japanese public prefers canceling the Games, though support is rising. Without billions of dollars at stake and pressure from the IOC, which can sue cities that don’t follow through on an Olympic contract, the Olympics very well might have been abandoned. Instead, they have begun. 

For all of the public misgivings, the people of the host country are gamely and graciously helping hordes of visiting athletes and those of us descending as reporters as we navigate – sometimes easily, sometimes not so easily – around the official venues.

Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters
An anti-Olympics protester holds signs outside the event venue of the torch relay in Tokyo on July 9, 2021.

​An unfinished story

The lead-up to every Olympics is an anxious period. Organizers fret, as athletes, media, and other volunteers descend upon the host city. With so much at stake, all molehills feel like mountains. 

In a moment where so many people are craving an oasis from the pandemic, says Professor Cottrell, the Olympics present a unique opportunity – beyond even that of this summer’s euphoric and similarly postponed Euro Cup. 

More than almost any other Olympics in the modern era, he says, these Games have a fluid narrative. The story of the Tokyo Games has changed before and will almost certainly change again.

Geopolitics and public health risks, after all, will be less top of mind when Simone Biles attempts a Yurchenko double pike vault, Katie Ledecky carves through a churning pool, or Kevin Durant composes poetry with a basketball.

By now, it’s clear the Games will not showcase a post-pandemic world. But despite looking different than expected, they still resemble the time in which they occur – like every other Olympics. A world largely still in lockdown will compete at a locked-down Olympics. 

“The presentation of it this time around will be of an eerie atmosphere, what I’ve been calling ... the cocooned Olympics,” says Alan Tomlinson, a professor of sport and leisure studies at the University of Brighton. 

But not all the challenges facing the Tokyo Games can be blamed on the pandemic. Fragile public trust in the integrity of Olympic officials and fraying economics for host cities have long affected the Games.

“We’re at this moment where the Olympics is in question probably as never before,” says Professor Rowe.

Amid declining interest in hosting the Games, says Professor Tomlinson, the bizarre Tokyo Games will test the value of the Olympic platform, and its ability to adapt to the world around it. Predicting that the Games will set viewership records, he expects people around the world to watch for a story.

“I don’t think it’ll lose a global audience,” he says.

Hopes and fears: Why Cuban protesters rally American left and right

What is it about Cuba? Six decades after the revolution, the island’s political fortunes still are potent fodder for Americans’ own struggles over freedom and how they define it.

Peter

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When President Barack Obama normalized relations with Havana in 2015, many regional experts thought Cuba’s hold on the American imagination would dissipate.

But that was before the past tumultuous year. U.S. protests over racial equality, on top of the pandemic and measures to address it, fed intense debates on issues like big government versus individual rights, and on hot-button topics like racism, socialism, and freedom.

When the recent anti-regime protests came along in Cuba, many Americans saw in them the convictions that had solidified over the previous year, says Michael Bustamante, an expert in Cuban-American political relations at Florida International University in Miami.

“What we are seeing in response to the spontaneous uprising in Cuba is both ends of the political spectrum here making very distinct but similar kinds of projections onto Cuba,” Dr. Bustamante says. “On the left, it’s still the ideal of Cuba as the role model of a more equal society with a certain racial equality the U.S. hasn’t achieved,” he adds. “On the right, people project their worst fears of what they believe any form of socialism in the U.S. would mean.”

Hopes and fears: Why Cuban protesters rally American left and right

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Maria Alejandra Cardona/Reuters
Émigrés watch videos from Cuba on a big screen at the Freedom Tower in Miami, during a gathering in reaction to reports of protests in Cuba against its deteriorating economy, July 17, 2021.

When a video emerged from Cuba’s unprecedented anti-regime demonstrations this month of a Havana protester waving the American flag, the political right in the United States was quick to seize on the display as proof that Cubans hate communism and want American-style freedom.

Some on social media juxtaposed the image of the Cuban waving the Stars and Stripes with scenes of American protesters burning flags at last summer’s police brutality and anti-racism demonstrations.

Not to be outdone, the lead organization in the Black Lives Matter movement also felt compelled to offer its two cents on the events in Cuba.

Dissatisfied Cubans marching in the streets was the direct result of the “U.S. federal government’s inhumane treatment of Cubans” through the 60-year-old economic embargo, the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation said. The freedom at stake is in fact “Cubans’ right to choose their own government” and to maintain Cuba’s “commitment to sovereignty and self-determination.”

The barrage of commentary may have done little to clarify what is actually transpiring in Cuba. But it underscores how this island nation of 11 million people continues to foment deep passions among Americans across the political spectrum more than six decades after a young bearded Fidel Castro ushered in his communist revolution.

“The United States and Cuba have a long and intertwined history during which Cuba and the Cuban people in their different representations have played the role of convenient proxies for the ideals and fears of both the right and the left in this country,” says Michael Bustamante, an assistant professor of Latin American history at Florida International University in Miami.

“What we are seeing in response to the spontaneous uprising in Cuba is both ends of the political spectrum here making very distinct but similar kinds of projections onto Cuba,” Dr. Bustamante says.

“On the left, it’s still the ideal of Cuba as the role model of a more equal society with a certain racial equality the U.S. hasn’t achieved,” he adds. “On the right, people project their worst fears of what they believe any form of socialism in the U.S. would mean.”

A tumultuous year

When President Barack Obama normalized relations with Havana in 2015, many regional experts predicted that Cuba’s hold on the American imagination would dissipate. More open relations and unavoidable economic change in Cuba would leave it resembling other small Latin American countries more than standing out from them.

But that was before the past tumultuous year in the U.S. A summer of nationwide protests over racial equality was layered on top of the pandemic and government measures to address it. Together, they fed intense national debates on issues like big government versus individual rights and on hot-button topics like institutional racism, socialism, and freedom.

Ramon Espinosa/AP
Plainclothes Cuban police detain an anti-government protester during a demonstration over high prices, food shortages, and power outages, while some people also called for a change in the government, in Havana, July 11, 2021.

When the Cuban protests came along, Dr. Bustamante says, many Americans were ready to see in them the convictions that had solidified over the previous year.

Among those on the right who see everything from mask mandates to child tax credits as creeping socialism, “They took one look and said, ‘They want to turn us into the mirror image of that!’” he says.

One thing the Cuba uprising has accomplished in the U.S. is a hardening of the Biden administration’s approach to Cuba. Before the demonstrations, the White House was moving toward a reversal of the punitive measures the Trump administration took and toward a return to the opening of relations President Obama had initiated.

New U.S. sanctions

No more. On Thursday President Joe Biden announced new sanctions on Cuban officials implicated in the repression of protesters. Moreover, Mr. Biden said the administration is working on providing internet services in Cuba that will circumvent official censorship efforts. It is also considering a new remittance policy aimed at allowing for private money transfers that do not at the same time enrich the government.

Young Cubans heeded social media calls to fill the streets in protest against everything from a shrinking economy and threadbare services to limited individual rights. For some Americans, the marches were really about one thing: freedom.

Yet some experts caution against reducing the events transpiring in Cuba to a quest for freedom. While that allows all political sides in the U.S. to see their version of freedom in the protests, it overlooks the complexities of the protests and the inconvenient realities they also present.

“Unfortunately, Cuba is being used as a political pawn in this very intense debate between the right and the left over their differing conceptions of freedom,” says Jorge Felipe-Gonzalez, an assistant professor of history and expert in Afro-Latin American relations at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

“What I hear mostly from the left in what they mean by freedom – and this you can see in the Black Lives Matter statement – is the idea of a more collectivist freedom, that because of the embargo Cuba cannot be free and sovereign if it is not free from imperialist interference,” he says.

“On the right [it appears to be] more about individual freedoms – freedoms of expression, of political parties, freedom of the press.”

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Republican Sen. Rick Scott of Florida displays a photo of the protests in Cuba as he speaks to reporters at the Capitol in Washington, July 13, 2021.

For both sides, he says, conceptions of the role of the state form a key dividing line.

“One side thinks about freedom with an emphasis on equality of outcomes – and in order to achieve more equality of outcomes the state has to be more interfering in people’s lives,” he says. “And the other side is thinking of it more as the freedom of individuals as independent from the state.”

Ignoring Cuba’s complexities

For Dr. Felipe-Gonzalez, who emigrated from Cuba to the U.S. in 2013, both the right and left in the U.S. are avoiding the aspects of the protests in Cuba that don’t fit neatly into their narratives of the events.

And he speaks from experience. Dr. Felipe-Gonzalez recently penned an opinion piece in The Atlantic in which he chided BLM for “missing the point of the protests” with its rhetorical support of Cuba’s communist government. He was attacked as a right-wing extremist supporting a U.S. invasion of Cuba – all news to him.

What he was pointing out, he says, is that BLM’s focus on a revolutionary Cuba that no longer exists has blinded it to realities that the racial justice movement should be interested in. Black Cubans have formed a disproportionate share of the protesters (and of those being detained). Discrimination has kept Black Cubans out of many jobs created by Cuba’s economic reforms, for example in tourism. And institutional racism has grown in Cuba in recent years.

At the same time, he says, the right suffers from the same blindness to realities it would rather ignore.

“The right declares the protests to be about freedom from government control, and to a certain extent that is true,” he says. “But it is also true that the Cubans in the streets are animated by a failure of the Cuban state to continue delivering the promises of free and equal education and free quality health care.”

As Dr. Bustamante says, “Some, including many Cuban Americans, don’t want to hear this, but there are many Cubans who believe in social rights. So at least partly what Cubans are responding to is a state that is losing its capacity to provide to its citizens,” he says.

“That doesn’t suggest strong support for the libertarian agenda many envision for Cuba,” he adds, “but it does suggest that a big question like what freedom means and how Cubans hash it out is going to be very much up for grabs.”

Listen

For these young sisters, a period of family, love, and sacrifice

Sisters Jaelynn and Jennifer Ashley Ciballos couldn’t be more different. Yet they work together to bring their family a much-needed sense of financial stability – and show the value of prioritizing the people who matter most. This is Episode 6 of “Stronger.”

Peter
Photo: Ann Hermes, photo illustration: Jacob Turcotte

During the pandemic, much of the media’s attention was on the millions of women who left the workforce. But college student Jennifer Ashley Ciballos and her sister Jaelynn, a high school senior, faced a different problem: having to work to keep their multigenerational household afloat. 

They’re part of a demographic that often goes unnoticed: young people from low-income families, often with immigrant parents, whose wages are essential to their households. When the Ciballos sisters’ father lost his job at the start of the pandemic, they juggled their studies with long hours at low-wage jobs to pay the rent and other bills. 

But both sisters also dream of getting college degrees someday, so that they can change their family’s financial trajectory for good. 

“My parents always told me that you only have one family. You have to care for them,” says Jennifer Ashley, who is studying to be a nurse. “I see how my parents are struggling right now and I just want to get them out of it.” 

In this final episode of our podcast “Stronger,” the Ciballos sisters show the lengths we go to support the people we love – even if it means putting our own dreams on hold. – Jessica Mendoza and Samantha Laine Perfas

This story was designed to be heard. We strongly encourage you to experience it with your ears (audio player below), but we understand that is not an option for everybody. A transcript is available here.

The Sisters

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Television

Comedies usually reward cynicism. Then came ‘Ted Lasso.’

As “Ted Lasso” returns for a second season, culture watchers reflect on what has made a comedy show that aims for optimism and kindness a sleeper hit. 

Peter
Courtesy of Apple TV+
Brendan Hunt, Cristo Fernández, and Jason Sudeikis star in “Ted Lasso,” the Apple TV+ comedy that heads into its second season with 20 Emmy nominations and a Peabody Award for storytelling.

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When people needed a laugh or a life guru this past year, many turned to a fictional soccer coach named Ted Lasso. 

The character’s innate goodness and capacity for forgiveness have resonated with pandemic-weary audiences since the debut of “Ted Lasso” on Apple TV+ last August. Recently nominated for 20 Emmys, the comedy about an American football coach who ends up as the head of an English soccer team returns for season two on July 23. 

Fans and TV critics agree on the show’s ability to overcome divisiveness – and that it succeeds at portraying buoyant actions and themes without making them seem out of touch. Some observe that what makes “Ted Lasso” different from many fish-out-of-water stories is that the new setting doesn’t change the protagonist. Instead, he transforms his environment.

“I could not only rely on Ted Lasso and that entire cast of characters to bring joy into my living room, but I could then bring joy to my customers and my friends through my baked goods,” says fan Amanda Rykoff, who sometimes replicates the shortbread biscuits that Lasso is famously fond of. “It is really about love and joy and humanity and forgiveness and being true to yourself.”

Comedies usually reward cynicism. Then came ‘Ted Lasso.’

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The hit comedy “Ted Lasso” plays like a sports version of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

The show, returning for season two on July 23, is about a Jimmy Stewart-like character’s resilience under pressure. Since the program’s debut on Apple TV+ last August, Ted Lasso’s innate goodness has resonated with pandemic-weary audiences. The word-of-mouth sleeper hit recently won a Peabody Award for storytelling and last week it was nominated for 20 Emmys.

A quick recap: Lasso is a Division II college football coach from Kansas who relocates to England to coach a professional soccer team. Alas, he knows absolutely nothing about the sport. Does it count that he’s heard of David Beckham? The sardonic soccer players aren’t just skeptical; they openly mock the coach’s sunny optimism. 

Some culture watchers observe that what makes “Ted Lasso” different from many fish-out-of-water stories is that the new setting doesn’t change the protagonist. Rather, he changes it. His ethos, embodied by the show’s tagline “kindness makes a comeback,” expresses a hopeful vision of how grace can heal divisions. Fans and TV critics say the show succeeds at portraying buoyant actions and themes without making them seem out of touch.

“It has a tone that is very rare on American television, or British television, for that matter, in that it is positive and hopeful without seeming saccharine or unrealistic,” says Ed Lee, an assistant professor at Emerson College who teaches screenwriting and comedic arts, in an email. “Many shows would take a character like that through the story machinations of a cynical world in order to either prove that people are cynical, or prove that the world is too cynical for a man like Ted Lasso.”

Thanks to his folksy geniality and handlebar mustache, Lasso (Jason Sudeikis) initially comes across like Ned Flanders from “The Simpsons” – but less cloying. The new coaching position challenges his sensibilities. For instance, when Lasso spots a racy pin-up poster in an athlete’s locker, he’s quick to cover it up. (It’s an adult show with situational humor that is occasionally, as the British would say, “bawdy.”) On the field, his egotistic athletes commit fouls and spew foul language. Off it, they bully the meek locker room attendant. The club’s dysfunction goes all the way up to the top. Unbeknownst to Lasso, the soccer club’s new owner is secretly trying to sabotage him. 

But the antagonists underestimate the coach’s savviness and proactive approach to his situation.

“Gandhi said, ‘Be the change you want to see in the world,’ and this creates the change you want to see,” Mr. Sudeikis told Entertainment Weekly last year. “Create the world where being nice, being uncynical, being egoless, being empathetic, and promoting forgiveness is not something that is weak.”

Courtesy of Apple TV+
In "Ted Lasso," the titular coach helps team members, including characters played by (l. to r.) Toheeb Jimoh and Brett Goldstein, feel welcome.

When Lasso’s not spouting homespun sayings reminiscent of “Deep Thoughts With Jack Handey” from “Saturday Night Live” (where Mr. Sudeikis was a cast member), he’s quoting Walt Whitman: “Be curious, not judgmental.” Instead of being resigned to the destructive behavior of those around him, the coach digs beneath the surface to try to understand why they’re acting that way.

“This is a show where people start out as mustache-twirling villains, but ultimately get redeemed, or at least get excused to some extent,” says Philip Scepanski, author of the recently published “Tragedy Plus Time: National Trauma and Television Comedy.” “It is a useful message in a world where the country feels very divided and there’s no common ground between these two sides.” 

One of Lasso’s biggest challenges is to bridge the factions within the soccer squad. He encourages his athletes to become less selfish. That includes a more inclusive welcome of teammate Sam Obisanya (Toheeb Jimoh), a homesick Nigerian. The coach doesn’t define success by wins and losses. He’s more interested in encouraging his players to be the best version of themselves on and off the field. Lasso seems like a graduate of the “Friday Night Lights” school of coaching.

“We all want somebody who sees the best of us when we can’t,” says Matthew Gilbert, television critic for The Boston Globe, who observes that audiences appreciate that Ted Lasso isn’t yet another superhero story or antihero story. “He’s not just a soccer coach or a football coach. ... He’s a life coach.” 

Mr. Sudeikis has compared his character to Michael Landon in “Highway to Heaven” or Della Reese in “Touched by an Angel” because of the way Lasso leads by example. Late in the first season, he reveals a remarkable capacity for forgiveness. That’s not to say Lasso is perfect – he’s struggling with family troubles back home.

“In 2020, many of us missed our best selves or, more broadly, we missed people around us responding to terrible situations as their best selves would,” says bestselling novelist Allison Winn Scotch, a fan of the series, in an email. “When faced with loss (sometimes literal, sometimes metaphoric), the characters responded in a way that we would hope that our best selves would.” 

The show’s message of taking moments to appreciate the good things in life deeply resonated with one of Ms. Winn Scotch’s friends, Amanda Rykoff, during the “dark time” of lockdown. It influenced the philosophy behind Ms. Rykoff’s recently launched baking business in Los Angeles. 

“I could not only rely on Ted Lasso and that entire cast of characters to bring joy into my living room, but I could then bring joy to my customers and my friends through my baked goods,” says Ms. Rykoff, who sometimes replicates the shortbread biscuits that Lasso is famously fond of. “It is really about love and joy and humanity and forgiveness and being true to yourself. It’s such a special show that I just gave myself the chills just thinking about it.”

“Ted Lasso” is rated TV-MA (mature audiences) for ages 15 and up. 

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Say thanks to this pandemic-survival trend

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For America’s millennials, the pandemic has created an introspective moment. About 40% said they would be sending a greeting card for the first time in 2021. Something in the lockdowns and social distancing is compelling them to send notes of appreciation. The shift toward gratitude fits with a survey in Britain. It found that more than half of adults have become “more grateful” during the pandemic.

For all the reports of a rise in loneliness, drug addiction, and other issues associated with mental health, the rise in gratitude has been overlooked. “It is precisely during difficult times where gratitude achieves its maximal power,” says gratitude expert Robert Emmons, a professor at the University of California, Davis.

A rise in gratitude may explain why well-being among individual Americans rose in 2020, according to a survey. “In the face of disease, death, and division, we continue to find promise in the resilience of our populations,” the survey’s authors concluded.

They note that internet searches for “how to thank” reached an all-time high last year. For many, the balm of gratitude has helped to create a calm over COVID-19.

Say thanks to this pandemic-survival trend

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A greeting-card display for the Postal Museum's COVID-19 project at the O2 Arena, in London, Britain

For America’s millennials, the long pandemic has created quite an introspective moment. According to stationery company Shutterfly, 40% of them said they would be sending a greeting card for the first time in 2021. Something in the lockdowns and social distancing is compelling them to send notes of appreciation.

The shift toward gratitude fits with a new survey in Britain by Virgin Media O2. It found that more than half of adults in the country have become “more grateful” during the pandemic. Nearly two-thirds of 18- to 24-year-olds, who are usually glued to digital screens, made new friends in their local areas.

For all the reports of a rise in loneliness, drug addiction, and other issues associated with mental health during the pandemic, the rise in gratitude has been overlooked. “It is precisely during difficult times where gratitude achieves its maximal power,” says gratitude expert Robert Emmons, a professor at the University of California, Davis.

In his own national survey in the spring of 2020, Professor Emmons found more than 56% of American adults reported being very grateful, which was 17% greater than they reported being happy, hopeful, relieved, or joyful. Nearly 70% expected to be even more grateful in the future.

The act of “being grateful” – rather than feeling grateful – is a choice, he says, “that endures and is relatively immune from gains and losses.” It is a source for resilience.

Acting on gratitude may explain why well-being among individual Americans actually rose in 2020 – by 4% over 2019 on an index of indicators – according to a survey of 400,000 people by Sharecare, a digital health firm, and Boston University School of Public Health. “In the face of disease, death, and division, we continue to find promise in the resilience of our populations,” the survey’s authors concluded in a May report.

They note that internet searches for “how to thank” reached an all-time high last year. For many, the balm of gratitude has helped to create a calm over COVID-19.

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.

Our mental faculties belong to God

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Recognizing that each of us is sustained and cared for by God empowers us to more consistently and thoroughly assimilate, retain, and recall the information we need to.

Our mental faculties belong to God

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Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition

At one point during my time in the military, I undertook a professional designation program that included a variety of intensive academic and physical fitness requirements on top of my regular workload. Upon completing the program – which would ultimately take 15 months or so – I would receive a military designation conveying that I had achieved a certain level of proficiency in United States Marine Corps operations.

On the academic side, there were weekly lectures, numerous study modules, and meetings with subject matter experts, concluding with a multi-hour oral board given by three to four senior individuals.

I knew I couldn’t accomplish this through sheer willpower, so I went to God in prayer. The Bible conveys this simple yet profound divine proclamation that can speak to us all: “Thou art mine” (Isaiah 43:1). Yes, we belong to God, our divine Parent, and so everything about us is in God’s care and expresses God’s nature.

In line with this idea is this explanation about divine Mind, another name for God, from “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science: “The divine Mind maintains all identities, from a blade of grass to a star, as distinct and eternal” (p. 70).

That includes you and me. And seeing this has helped me understand that God is the eternal source of our mental faculties, including memory. God knows us in our true, spiritual nature: forever perfect, whole, and complete. As God’s spiritual offspring, we reflect the qualities of the divine Mind – including intelligence and wisdom.

God’s, Mind’s, faculties are infinite, limitless, unaffected by material factors, stable, and forever intact. And our mental faculties are maintained and cared for by God. As we recognize this, we find that we’re able to assimilate, retain, and recall information from memory more consistently and thoroughly.

The designation process was intimidating at times, but as I persisted in my prayers affirming these spiritual facts, I felt empowered in my efforts to fulfill the requirements. I was able to go into the oral board with confidence, fully knowing that all of us reflect the same God, the one true Mind. How grateful I was to pass the oral board and receive the designation!

Whatever our situation may be, we can prove God’s care for our mental faculties. And the divine assurance of wisdom and care can be ours today as we consider God’s proclamation: “Thou art mine.”

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Art as play

Peter Nicholls/Reuters
A child takes part in “UNIQLO Tate Play,” an interactive exhibition on the floor of Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, in London on July 23, 2021.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )

A look ahead

Come back Monday, when we’ll have a report from Tokyo on the army of family, friends, and trainers that surrounds every Olympian. 

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