The Hard Part Is About to Start in U.S.-Cuban Relations

After a heady six month romance, Washington and Havana now face the daunting task of untangling obstacles put into place over the last 54 years

There’s a new flagpole outside the stately Washington D.C. building that will become the Cuban Embassy later this month—and that’s a win to be savored by President Obama, who has made outreach to enemy states a main point of his foreign policy. But if flagpoles are the symbol of the day, take proper note of the forest of 138 staffs outside the Havana building that will house the U.S. Embassy. The flagpoles were placed there nine years ago by the Cuban government, to physically impede the view of the building, a mostly empty seaside edifice Washington had decided to turn into an electronic message board aimed at speaking directly to the Cuban population.

That sophomoric level of exchange is precisely what both governments have said they aim to leave behind, over the six months since Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced the surprise rapprochement. The leaders managed to speak to rather than past each other at the hemispheric summit in Panama in April, and U.S. and Cuban officials got on well in the series of private negotiations that produced Wednesday’s announcement. Secretary of State John Kerry will go to Havana on July 22 to formally convert the U.S. Interests Section to the U.S. Embassy. And the White House says Obama is among the Americans curious about seeing the country for himself; look for him to visit before his term ends.

But away from the large gestures and sweeping statements, the reality on the ground remains stubborn. Relations between the countries were cut off in 1961, and it’s not as though things stood still for the next 54 years. Both countries were busy producing a jungle of laws, regulations and procedures intended, like that forest of flagpoles, to act as obstacles to normal contact. And jungles are not easily untangled.

Obama’s administration did what it could in the first weeks after the December announcement, using executive authority to remove penalties for Americans to travel to Cuba—as long as they did not call themselves tourists. Airline charters are now permitted from many U.S. cities, and passenger ferries from South Florida. But a thicket of impediments remain. The four biggest:

1. The embargo: As Obama made clear in his Rose Garden remarks, the chief executive is powerless to undo the overlapping legislation that bars U.S. citizens and companies from doing ordinary business with the island. Only Congress can repeal the embargo, and that’s one place where the Cuban expatriate lobby—dominated by staunchly anti-Castro Cubans who fled the island after Fidel took power in 1959—has yet to be tested. Presidential contender Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican, has made himself chief spokesman against making any change.

2. Guantanamo: Obama’s promise to close the controversial prison on Guantanamo Naval Base does not mean the U.S. has any intention of giving up the base itself, which it’s leased from Havana since 1903—on terms Washington dictated, in the Big Brother role it played in Cuban internal affairs before Castro. But Castro’s government has never cashed the rent checks. Both for reasons of sovereignty and credibility as anti-imperialist stalwart, Cuba wants the land back.

3. The Internet: The announcements by Netflix and Airbnb that they would be operating in Cuba made headlines, but not a lot of sense. The island is barely wired. Ordinary citizens pass information by thumb drives loaded up by someone lucky enough to grab a signal. The Havana government likes to control information, and so distrusts the Web. Obama has repeatedly expressed his keenness for U.S. business to help Cuba go digital, and if Havana allows that, it will signal a huge breakthrough. But something has to give, and there’s hope in Castro’s state choice of the official who will succeed him when he steps down as president in 2018: Miguel Diaz-Canel, 55, is known to be a Web enthusiast. As one former Cuban official told me with a look of wonder, “I’ve heard that the first thing he does in the morning is check his email!”

4. Castro: “Sometimes we allow ourselves to be trapped by a certain way of doing things,” Obama said in the Rose Garden on Wednesday. He was referring to Americans, but could have been talking about Cuba’s 84-year-old president. Often described as more flexible than his brother, Fidel, Raul Castro is not exactly Gumby. His efforts to shift Cuba from stagnant socialism to a market economy have been glacial and halting, more chastened by the example of “shock therapy” in the former Soviet Union than guided by the examples of Vietnam and China. Cuban officials speak of fashioning a new way forward, one that preserves the social equality that has been the government’s major accomplishment of the last five decades. But it’s far from clear that Havana has a strategy to channel the changes that ordinary people are expecting now that America is no longer an enemy.

“Of course,” Obama said, “nobody expects Cuba to be transformed overnight.” Raul Castro expects it least of all. The question is whether it will be up to him.

TIME Terrorism

Friday’s Three Terror Attacks Might Not Be Connected—and That’s Even Scarier

Tunisia hotel attack
Amine Ben Aziza—Reuters Police officers control the crowd, while surrounding a man suspected to be involved in opening fire on a beachside hotel in Sousse, Tunisia, as a woman reacts, on June 26, 2015.

A bloody assault in Tunisia, a decapitation in France and a suicide bombing in Kuwait are part of the horrifying new normal of terrorism

Three separate terror attacks on the very same morning—perhaps 37 people rifled to death on a Tunisia beach, a businessman decapitated outside a gas factory in France and a Shi’ite mosque bombed in Kuwait City—sounds like more than a coincidence. Simultaneity has been a signature of al-Qaeda since Aug. 7, 1998, when the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were hit by truck bombs within minutes of each other. And if counterterrorism analysts say the greater threat now appears to be ISIS, sure enough the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria’s spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani just this week issued a general call for attacks in an audio message:

Muslims, embark and hasten toward jihad. O mujahedeen everywhere, rush and go to make Ramadan a month of disasters for the infidels.

But while the extremist group claimed responsibility for the Kuwait bombing—a rare attack in a rich kingdom that has largely escaped terror—ISIS has so far said nothing about the other two. There’s a very real chance that the timing of the three attacks was indeed coincidental—though the reason is scarcely less alarming. The fact is there are so many terror attacks these days that three bad ones happening on the same morning falls well within the realm of statistical probabilities.

There were 13,463 terror attacks across the globe in 2014, according to the U.S. State Department. That factors out to an average of 1,122 a month, or about 37 a day, which means a terror attack roughly every 40 minutes, somewhere in the world. Half of them took place in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, where such atrocities have indeed grown so routine as to rarely qualify as international news. Syria, India and Nigeria together accounted for a bit better than a tenth of the sum. The rest were scattered around the globe, but not evenly. Of the 32,727 people killed, only 24 were Americans, or .07 percent of the total. Ten of those were in Afghanistan.

We are, moreover, in what has historically been the peak season for terror strikes, which past tallies show tend to rise in May, June and July. The holy month of Ramadan also factors in, with its associations of heightened piety. ISIS’s call to arms for Ramadan echoed similar summons from earlier insurgent groups in Iraq, where, as anyone who spent time in Baghdad over the last decade or so can attest, Fridays were seldom quiet.

If it seems like things are getting worse fast, they are. The number of attacks almost doubled from 2013 to 2014, as did the number fatalities. This had the perverse effect of making terror—which is meant to shock—actually less remarkable, as each attack dissolved into the generalized “background noise” of global news cycles.

ISIS has responded by amping up the horror. The group last year accounted for 17 percent of all terror strikes, yet nonetheless dominated the news by taking lives grotesquely and on video: Decapitating hostages, setting a Jordanian pilot alight in a cage, and in a new atrocity video released this week, killing captives by drowning them in a cage lowered into a pool; firing a rocket-propelled grenade at a car in which they are shackled; detonating explosive necklaces looped around their necks.

The group also wallows in mass killings, usually of Shi’ite Muslims and other groups the Sunni extremists of ISIS regard as apostates. Organized terror strikes by ISIS outside its theatre of military operations in Iraq and Syria remain infrequent, but when they come they do tend to be against Shi’ite targets, like the mosque in Kuwait City that ISIS dubbed “a gathering of apostates.” And as details emerge from rural France, where both suspects were taken alive, that attack may also turn out to have been inspired by, if not quite organized by ISIS. With a human head perched on a factory fence, the incident has the medieval flavor of the Islamic State.

The Tunisia attack, on a pair of beach hotels popular with European tourists also resulted in an arrest, of a man from the Tunisian city of Kairouan who had hidden a Kalashnikov in a beach umbrella. There were no immediate claims of responsibility, but both the targets and the setting— a moderate and democratic Arab nation friendly to the West—meant that attack is likeliest to hit closest to home for Americans. The dead included British, German and Belgian visitors, according to reports.

The U.S. remains at once quite safe and yet more vulnerable than it’s been in a decade, according to authorities. Officials explain the paradox by noting that the surge in the number of attacks worldwide includes few of the “spectacular” strikes such as bombings of civilian airlines, or other plots that the West in particular has hardened itself against. But officials expect more and more of the kind of attacks ISIS calls for — small-bore, lone-wolf, often impulsive attacks that may be impossible to detect in advance.

“In many ways I would say the threat streams now are higher than they’ve been since any time after Sept. 11,” Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican who serves on the House Intelligence subcommittee, tells TIME, speaking before Friday’s attacks. “ISIS has added a whole new dimension to it.”

The group’s power to inspire attacks, largely through its adept use of social media, has intelligence and counter-terrorism authorities scrambling to discern threats that could pop up anywhere a laptop or smart phone connects to the Internet. It’s a far more diffuse threat than Western countries faced from al-Qaeda, which organized specific plots through a rigid hierarchy, notes Jane Harman, formerly ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Subcommittee, now director of the Wilson Center in Washington. “A terror cell [now] is somebody on the web encountering some dangerous information,” Harman says. “That’s a terror cell.”


Why the Nuclear Experts Who Sent an Open Letter to Obama Are Really Talking to Iran

Ali Khamenei
AFP/Getty Images Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, addresses country's top officials during a meeting in Tehran in which he restated his country's red lines for a nuclear deal with world powers on June 23, 2015.

In the Iran nuclear talks, your intended audience isn't always who you think it is

Much is made of how skillful the Iranians are at negotiating—and they are. But the Americans aren’t bad either, at least by the evidence of the latest news from the nuclear talks: an open letter signed by 18 former U.S. officials and experts, including five former advisers to President Obama, warning the president against accepting a deal that fails to include certain vital elements, such as inspections of Iranian military bases and ensuring that relief from sanctions comes only after Iran complies with an agreement.

It’s not the kind of thing you see much in American foreign policy—a group advisory like this, setting out red lines and reminding the nation’s leader of his obligations. You do, however, see it all the time somewhere else—in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Iran’s news media is lousy with these things: Sober, sage proclamations directed to the pinnacle of the political leadership. People talk about the opacity of Iran’s governing structure, and it’s true that between the Council of Guardians, the Assembly of Experts and the Expediency Council—just to name three of Iran’s non-elective bodies —there are more moving parts than a Rube Goldberg mousetrap. But that doesn’t mean things are opaque—just complicated. Ultimate power may rest with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but his own political survival requires consultations with the groups and individuals who make up his own political base, and a sound reading of the larger Iranian society that ultimately will find a way to hold him accountable. So decisions by Iran’s leaders often take a long time to gestate, and sometimes even longer to emerge.

But that process is more public than you’d think for an official theocracy. Iran has a lot of newspapers, several TV stations and its share of news sites. Most may be linked to the state, but they fairly throb—or pulse, at least—with the words of a governing structure talking to itself. Most of the chatter is in Persian, of course, but it’s all public. That means it has to be read, and the State Department has people just across the Persian Gulf, in Dubai, to follow a lot of it. State quietly pays people in Iran to translate even more, so that folks back in Foggy Bottom can read it too. (“Intelligence” is a sexy word, but the CIA itself says that up to 95 percent of what it knows it finds out by reading the papers—known in the spy game as “OSINT,” for Open Source Intelligence.)

The point, though, is not what American officials read, but what Iranian officials read: “The Public Statement on U.S. Policy Toward the Iran Nuclear Negotiations Endorsed by a Bipartisan Group of American Diplomats, Legislators and Experts,” the heading of the open letter compiled by the impressive, and impressively bi-partisan group assembled by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank. It’s the kind of discourse that speaks to Iranians, relatable and familiar. Which is fortunate, because while its authors addressed it to President Obama, the real audience was Khamenei and the rest of the government of Iran.

The June 30 deadline for a final nuclear pact is just days away, and Khamenei on June 23 delivered a speech that cast the entire enterprise into doubt—reinforced the next day with a helpful chart listing “Major Red Lines in Nuclear Negotiations,” posted on Twitter with the words “Red Lines” in red type. His timing was impeccable. The Leader pounced six days after Secretary of State John Kerry showed a bit of weakness, suggesting publicly that in a final deal Iran might not have to account for past research on a nuclear weapon.

Knowing when to exploit an opening is, of course, one mark of a formidable negotiator. But another is speaking to the other side in a language it understands—which is exactly what the U.S. side is doing with its own Open Letter.

TIME isis

The Kurds Are Building a Country With Every Victory Over ISIS

Members of Kurdish People Defense Units (YPG) guard during a sunset near Tel Abyad border gate in northern Syria on June 23, 2015.
Sedat Suna—EPA Members of Kurdish People Defense Units (YPG) guard during a sunset near Tel Abyad border gate in northern Syria on June 23, 2015.

Syrian Kurds take a town 30 miles from the ISIS capital, but their goal of their own nation complicate the fight

Ethnic Kurds—who on Tuesday scored their second and third significant victories over ISIS in the space of eight days—are by far the most effective force fighting ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. But they appear to intent on keeping all the ground they’ve taken from the militant group for their own national project, endangering the larger cause of keeping these two battered nation-states in one piece, and raising the prospect of another war patiently waiting at the conclusion of the current one.

The recent run of victories in Syria illustrates the Kurds’ battlefield capabilities. Six months after winning in Kobani, the Turkish border town where as many as 1,000 ISIS fighters died, Syrian Kurd fighters on June 15 took another border town, Tel Abyad, creating a corridor on Syria’s northern border and—far more important—cutting off the main supply line to Raqqah, ISIS’s capital 60 miles due south. On Tuesday, the Kurd forces—a Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK—seized a military base known as Brigade 93, as well as the town adjoining it, Ain Issa. The victories put them within 30 miles of Raqqah.

The Kurds fight so well largely because, in addition to trying to defeat an extremist enemy, they’re fighting for something—a country of their own. The future Kurdistan may be severely buffeted across Arab portions of the Middle East—neither Yemen nor Libya have functioning central governments, and both Syria and Iraq exist largely as shards of sect, tribe and ethnicity. But the Kurds, despite their large numbers (about 30 million worldwide), as well as their shared language, culture and identity, have never had a nation. But they’re getting closer to one with every battle.

In Iraq, Kurdish forces armed by both Iran and the U.S. have taken perhaps 10,000 square miles from ISIS since last fall. They also snapped up the disputed city of Kirkuk, rich in oil and cultural significance to Kurds and Arabs alike—and are preventing Arabs from returning to some villages. Houses are marked “Reserved for Kurds,” and Kurdish checkpoints declare, “No Arabs Allowed.”

These acts on the ground are clearly intended to create “facts on the ground,” A political reality that Kurdish leaders will point as they navigate their relationship with the Iraqi central government in Baghdad, to which they are currently bound by oil-revenue contracts, if little else. As valiantly as the Kurds have fought, losing an estimated 1,000 men and women over the last year against ISIS, they see the conflict in terms of national liberation. Massoud Barzani, who leads the Kurdistan Regional Government, has repeatedly said Kurds will not fight for the rest of Iraq, or for the idea of it.

“Relying on Iraqi Kurds to act as coalition boots on the ground may eliminate some [ISIS] safe havens, but it is fueling Kurdish land grabs,” warns Denise Natali, a senior research fellow at National Defense University in Washington. “Iraqi Kurds are using U.S. airstrikes and the political vacuum in northern Iraq not only to push back ISIS, but also to recapture disputed territories and oil fields—some of the very measures that have fueled Sunni Arab resentment since 2003.”

Human Rights Watch documented instances of Kurds confining Sunni Arabs to specific areas to prevent their return, actions that Natali says undermine the attempts by the U.S. and Baghdad to lure Iraq’s Sunni Arabs away from the orbit of ISIS and back into Iraq’s national enterprise: “It’s all about addressing the Sunni Arabs’ grievances,” she tells TIME.

Iraq’s Kurds have tried this before, but more gently. After the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq removed Saddam Hussein, Kurds left the autonomous region that had been protected by U.S. warplanes for the previous decade, and moved into the northern Iraq city of Kirkuk—not with armor, which they don’t have, but with garbage trucks and street cleaners. The idea was to start providing essential government services to the oil-rich city, which is also claimed by Iraq’s Sunni population, and thereby assume control in the softest possible manner.

Kurdish leaders wanted everyone on their best behavior: They ordered looters to return 300 cars looted after the fall of the city, and fretted openly about acts of revenge, including rapes, being perpetrated against Arabs who had pushed them off their land.

It didn’t work. U.S. forces ordered the garbage trucks sent home, and for the next decade Iraq’s Kurds were forced to employ more gradual methods, mostly moving their people into the city, in order to win any referendum on its future. Then ISIS made its blitzkrieg, taking Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul a year ago, then Tikrit and moving toward Kirkuk. But the Kurds got there first, and aim to hold on to it, and every other square mile they’ve won—including territory claimed by Arabs.

“We have to be careful that in our pushing back ISIS, we are not setting the stage for the next conflict,” says Natali. So far, the U.S. has had the leverage to hold the situation together, with help from Turkey, home to half the world’s Kurds. The maddening paradox is that the situation grows more difficult to manage with every gain against ISIS, the shared enemy.

TIME isis

As ISIS Grows Its Territory, It Becomes Increasingly Dangerous

By gaining territory in Iraq, Syria and Libya the extremist group adds credibility for its caliphate, a potent concept to Muslims

When ISIS wins more ground, it gains more than just territory. Every additional inch on the map produces an inflated sense of both the group’s own power and the credibility of its claim to be the presumptive leader of the world’s Sunni Muslims. The extremist group may hold mostly stretches of desert, but desert, after all, is what most of what the Middle East is. At this point any expansion summons associations with the historical caliphates whose growing footprints are recalled with a certain pride by all Muslims, including moderates who disdain the group.

Consider the map below. It shows the reach of history’s largest Islamic caliphate, the Ummayad dynasty, circa 700 AD:



And here’s a New York Times map now online, labeled “Areas with ISIS cells”:

Credit: New York Times


It’s a gross exaggeration, of course. ISIS actually controls perhaps 1 percent of that sprawling yellow expanse, as the more detailed maps in the Times graphic make abundantly clear. But in every one of those maps, ISIS turf is growing. And that growth feeds the narrative of momentum and inevitability that in turn feeds recruitment to ISIS. After all, the group is not simply a terrorist organization. It claims to have established the system of governance under which Muslims lived until 100 years ago, when World War I ended the Ottoman Empire, the last dynasty to include a caliph, the name given for the leader of the faithful after the 632 A.D. death of the Prophet Mohammad. Last June 29, not three weeks after taking Mosul, the leader of ISIS, previously known by the nom de guerre Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared himself Caliph Ibrahim, and the Syrian and Iraqi soil under control of the Islamic State a new caliphate.

“One of the prerequisites of a caliphate is a significant swath of territory,” says Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. “So the more territory you have the more legitimacy your caliphate will have. That’s historically been the case, and ISIS very self-consciously thinks it’s modeling the first generations of Islam, where you these very impressive territory conquests in a short period of time.”

Every student of Islam remembers seeing those conquests spreading across maps as in the .gif below, a green tide that appeared to move as fast as horses could carry the warriors.


Credit: Wikipedia

Historians say the extraordinary pace of that conquest rose from a combination of factors, not least the appeal of the faith itself, as seen in both the zeal of Mohammad’s followers and their success at winning converts (encouraged by a tax levied on nonbelievers). Some areas were exhausted by years of war between other empires, and some places, such as Persia, where state religion Zoroastrianism was in decline, were ripe for change.

Polls show very few Muslims support ISIS. Most prefer to live in the modern world, and to observe the moderate understandings of Islam that predominate globally. But most Muslims also will say that the West’s war on terror, defined by the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, is also a war on their faith, and a great many express either nostalgia or banked hope for the notion of a caliphate. That gap offers ISIS room to maneuver.

“The concept of the caliphate is very much alive in the collective memory of society,” columnist and author Ali Bulac told me a full nine years ago, in Istanbul, where the last caliph was bundled onto the Orient Express, in 1924, by the secular founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk. “There is absolutely nothing to keep Muslim society together at the moment,” Bulac said. I found a degree of longing for the caliphate in every strata of society in Turkey, a NATO member that at the time was still being held up by Washington as a model of Muslim democracy and moderation. “Why do you keep invading Muslim countries?” a tailor named Kerem Acar asked me. “I won’t live to see it, and my children won’t, but one day maybe my children’s children will see someone declare himself the caliph, like the pope, and have an impact.”

ISIS claims to be doing exactly that.

“If their territory was rolled back significantly, it would be harder for them to make various arguments,” says Hamid, whose new book, Temptations of Power, is on Islamist movements. “If eventually they were reduced to a very small piece of Syria, then the idea of a caliphate wouldn’t resonate as much with potential supporters.”

But that’s not what’s happening. Six months ago, ISIS appeared to be hemmed in. Its lightning advances in Iraq had been turned away at the country’s north by the Iraqi Kurds, and in the east by Shiite militias. In Syria the extremists lost a hugely symbolic battle at Kobani, the border town that became a last stand for Syrian Kurds, and a turkey shoot for U.S. warplanes. The Obama administration and Baghdad had some breathing space to revive the Iraqi military as an effective fighting force.

But the tide has changed. ISIS just had a very good month. In Iraq it took Ramadi, the largest city in Anbar Province, and began an assault on the last government-held population centers between it and Baghdad, 70 miles to the east, where it already surrounds the international airport. In Syria, ISIS swept up the ancient city of Palmyra, and moved toward Aleppo, the country’s shattered largest city. In Libya, groups that have pledged allegiance to Baghdadi’s caliphate gained ground, holding Muamar Ghadaffi’s hometown of Sirt, fighting in Benghazi and a half dozen other places. ISIS-aligned groups also fight in Yemen, the Egyptian Sinai and all those other countries on the sprawling map of historically Muslim lands.

It’s not columns of horsemen galloping across the desert wastes, but that’s not how conquest works anymore. On the social media sites where ISIS has such a formidable presence, the frontiers on the online maps are once again pushing outward, and would-be followers are voting with their feet. New recruits arrive from around the world at the rate of 1,000 a month, according to intelligence officials. The Pentagon says its airstrikes are killing ISIS fighters at the same rate. If both numbers are accurate, they describe a balance that ISIS—apparently largely commanded by former military officers from Saddam Hussein’s army—has found ways to work to its advantage on the ground.

And the longer it maintains momentum, the more of a threat it becomes. Up to now, the group’s primary focus appears to remain on the Middle East, and on building the caliphate. But should its leaders decide to shift to a serious terror campaign in the United States and other Western countries, as some seasoned intelligence analysts say it surely will, just how ISIS and its caliphate are viewed by usually moderate Muslims will matter a great deal. It may, for instance, make the difference between a sleeper cell being reported to the authorities, or allowed to proceed unmolested. As former State Department counterterror official Daniel Benjamin has put it, “small opinion changes at the margins of a population of 1.2 billion people can have enormous effects.” And small changes of opinions—or more than small—tend to occur during months like the one ISIS just had.


The Hazy Future for Cuban Cigars


When long-forbidden Cuban cigars become more available to Americans, will they maintain their aroma of glamour?

From the new TIME special edition Inside the New Cuba. Pick up your copy in stores today. Digital edition available at TimeSpecials.com

If the opening to Cuba proceeds to its logical conclusion, it’ll be cigars all around. The island’s iconic product, forbidden as imports to the U.S. since 1962 by the economic embargo, long ago moved from sorely missed to the realm of nearly fetishistic obsession. After half a century, the hand-rolled House of Habano puros now appear to contain all that was just out of reach to Americans, as well as the flavor distinct to the soil of Pinar del Río, the southwestern province where the world’s most famous tobacco leaves are grown. The 100 million Cuban cigars sold worldwide count as one of the nation’s leading exports, up there with nickel and cane sugar, a crucial source of hard currency for a government that never figured out the economy.

It’s not just the distinctive taste. A great deal of both history and mystique gets wrapped up in the leaves assembled on the wooden tables where the tabaqueros famously sit in rows, facing the elevated platform where a lector reads a newspaper aloud, to occupy the mind while the fingers fly. A tour of the Partagás factory remains one of the tourist mainstays of Havana—state property since its building, farms and brands were appropriated, along with every other private concern, by a revolutionary government that over time actually managed to enhance the brand. Fidel Castro’s cigar was as much a part of his image as his fatigues, and far less egalitarian. The cigar was a Cohiba, a brand created specially for the upper echelons of the Communist elite (Che Guevara loved them too) before being marketed as a global label in 1982, three years before Fidel quit smoking.

The contradiction—elite taste vs. leveling ideology—never seemed to bother anyone; such was the power of a tradition that goes to the heart of Cuba’s appeal as a culture. The modern hotel where U.S. diplomats first openly met Cuban officials to discuss renewing relations was pleasant enough, but you only knew you were in Cuba within the dark wooden walls of its tobacco shop. Beside the door sits an elegantly groomed older man in a guayabera, Arnaldo Alfonso Ibáñez, rolling them fresh in Cohiba wrappers. He may have to pick up the pace. Under the new regulations published by the Obama administration, U.S. citizens can bring back up to $100 of tobacco (or alcohol) products. Should Congress vote to lift the embargo outright, Habanos, a 50-50 partnership of the Cuban state and a British firm, estimates that its sales would jump 70%.

And what would be lost? A certain cachet. Some memories. I learned to smoke on Cubans, two boxes I carried back to Washington from a visit to Havana in the late 1990s. It was good to start small—the Romeo y Julieta “Cedros”—and in the open air, to build up tolerance before moving on to the second box, Cohiba “Lanceros” so obviously counterfeit that the customs agent at the Dallas airport (“we just had a class on cigars”) handed them back to me, shaking his head. By the time I moved abroad, Havanas were about all you could buy in the duty-free humidors of the airports a foreign correspondent knows better than his own bed. I once expensed a box of Bolivar Gigantes after handing them out to help battle the stench on a Ugandan hilltop that produced not one but two mass graves; the accounting department put it through.

They also made great gifts, though it was a mistake not to tell a friend about the handful I’d tucked into his knapsack before driving him to the airport for his flight back to Los Angeles. A customs agent found them first and “cut them up there in front of me,” he reported later, not happy. He was a freelancer who wrote profiles for Cigar Aficionado, usually celebrities, some of whom would stay in touch after publication, calling him up when they got their hands on some Cubans. “The people who want ’em are getting them,” says Bill Sherman, grandson of the New York tobacconist who took in the owner of Partagás after he was driven out of Cuba. The Nat Sherman Townhouse sells its own brand, but a cabinet of 400 pre-embargo Partagás has pride of place in the members’ vault on 42nd Street in Manhattan, perhaps the largest stock in the U.S. of pre-Revolutionary cigars, a level of exclusivity that approaches either the effervescent or the ridiculous, depending. But there’s a reason for its following.

“What makes a Bordeaux from Bordeaux special?” Sherman asks. “You can’t take a Bordeaux seed and plant it in Napa Valley and get the same wine. It’s the soil, the sun, the climate.” Still, over the years, California has managed some superior varietals of its own, as drinkers grew more sophisticated and learned to trust their own tastes. Something like that may happen if Cubans hit the States.

“I gotta tell you, as a retailer, I’m ecstatic. We’ll be selling them,” Sherman says. But without the mystique of the forbidden, Cubans will have to earn their place in the pantheon. “You go to Spain,” he notes, “and Cuban cigars are less expensive than Domincans.”

From the new TIME special edition Inside the New Cuba. Pick up your copy in stores today. Digital edition available at TimeSpecials.com

TIME Turkey

The Election Loss for Turkey’s Erdogan Is a Victory for Democracy

Young supporters of pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) hold Kurdish flags as they celebrate the results of the legislative election, in Diyarbakir in Turkey on June 7, 2015.
Bulent Kilic—AFP/Getty Images Young supporters of pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) hold Kurdish flags as they celebrate the results of the legislative election, in Diyarbakir in Turkey on June 7, 2015.

Before power went to his head, Turkey's president empowered the voters who in Sunday's election abruptly blunted his rise

Turks dealt a staggering blow to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday in the only language he understands: votes. The invigorating result was to reaffirm the exciting changes that Erdogan engineered in Turkish society when he first emerged as the nation’s leader a dozen years ago—the same changes that Sunday’s result showed Erdogan failed to properly appreciate. He thought it was all about him.

The great and historic success of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, known by the Turkish-language initials AKP, was in empowering the heartland voters the country’s governing elite had never quite trusted. Built as a parliamentary democracy, Turkey was crippled through most of its first eight decades in existence by the paradoxical unwillingness of the people in power to abide by the wishes of the electorate.

Again and again, the country’s military grabbed power whenever things were going in a direction the generals deemed dangerous. Each time, their excuse for seizing power was safeguarding the “secular democracy” put in place by the nation’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the charismatic former officer who shaped a modern state from the remains of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Ataturk died in 1938, but the paternalism of his early state lived on. It even had a name: Kemalism, a kind of governing rigidity, hostile to religious expression and deeply invested in “the state,” that critics said Ataturk himself would have disowned for stunting the growth of a mature democracy.

And that’s what AKP’s 2002 ascendance appeared to announce. For most of its first decade in power, Erdogan’s party made Turkey’s democracy credible. Each election brought it a larger share of the vote for the party, and with it, the political clout that allowed AKP to finally sideline the generals. The party did so partly by governing moderately, despite Erdogan’s earlier embrace of political Islam. Under AKP, sharia was cast not as a replacement for electoral democracy but rather the a moral force that informed one party’s politics—not unlike the Christian Democrats of postwar West Germany, as Erdogan liked to point that out.


Another thing Erodgan liked to point out was that he constituted the personal embodiment of this morality. Unlike previous Turkish leaders, he was a working class son of the land, the self-described “black Turk” who took the country back from the elitist secularists known as “white Turks.”

The only problem: He did not govern as a democrat. “He thinks democracy is winning elections, period,” Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkey program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told me last year. To Erdogan, a thumping victory at the ballot box is a mandate to do as you please, and he brooked no dissent, either within AKP or from outside. Famously thin-skinned (on the night of his first election, he took umbrage at a simple question by threatening to have me declared an enemy of the state), he not only sued journalists, but made Turkey what Reporters Without Borders called “the world’s largest prison for journalists,” with 42 then behind bars in 2013, the year Freedom House shifted its description of Turkish news media from “partly free” to “not free.”

As a majoritarian, Erdogan acted on the same presumption that doomed the Muslim Brotherhood—an Islamist party he admires—in Egypt, where the military had not yet been defanged. In Turkey, Erdogan sailed on, riding out mass protests over his high-handed style of governing, and a corruption scandal that produced a tape of him instructing his son to move tens of millions of Euros out of a home safe. Last August, 52 percent of Turkish voters made him him president, a largely ceremonial office that Erdogan made clear he had plans to expand. Erdogan set out to restructure Turkey’s entire system of governance to suit his opinion of himself—a presidential system, with powers as vast as the $615 million presidential palace he built in Ankara in anticipation of victory: 1,150 rooms, including space for five official food testers.

But to alter the constitution, AKP needed to win a supermajority of the 550 seats in the Grand National Assembly in the June 7 election. At the start of the campaign, Erdogan asked the public to give his party 400 seats—a super-duper majority. He fell a bit short—the 256 seats AKP won was not even enough for a simple majority. For the first time since 2002, AKP will need to find a partner in order to govern. None of the other parties say they want to serve as junior partner, including the Peoples’ Democratic Party, or HDP, the upstart whose 13 percent of the vote cost AK its majority . HDP is a Kurdish party, long linked to the guerrilla movement that fought a separatist war on behalf of the country’s largest minority, which Kemalists refused to recognize as an ethnicity. In the election, however, HDP campaigned on peace, and drew not only from the Kurdish southeast of Turkey but also the substantial population of ethnic Turks who no longer feel threatened by a minority identity in the land. And surely many who oppose Erdogan.

Led by a former human rights activist named Selahattin Demirtas, the campaign signaled a healing of the Turkish body politic that only a few analysts, such as Cagapty, saw as inevitable, given the forces that the rise of AKP had set in motion — from the empowerment of the electorate, to the economic boom that, though fading lately, nonetheless created both new wealth and new expectations of governance.

“I think Turkey’s future is it will be governed by liberals,” Cagapty said last year. He reasoned that Erdogan’s days were numbered by the “large, liberal middle class” spawned by economic growth in the Anatolian heartland that the elite had long ignored. “So he’s in fact created his own political nemesis.” And in the process, accidentally produced a bit of good news in a region where authoritarianism is rising unchallenged almost everywhere else.

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