TIME Cuba

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 eight 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 in the 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 Cuba

Watch President Obama Announce Cuba Embassy Opening

The U.S. and Cuba re-established diplomatic relations earlier this year

The United States and Cuba will open embassies in each other’s capital cities, formally rebuilding diplomatic relations for the first time since 1961

TIME diplomacy

U.S. and Cuba Announce Embassy Openings

Head of US Interests Section in Havana delivers a letter from Obama to Cuban President Castro
Alejandro Ernesto—EPA Chief of Mission at the US Interests Section in Havana Jeffrey DeLaurentis (left) meets Cuban interim Foreign Minister, Marcelo Medina (right), in Havana, Cuba, on July 1, 2015.

Both countries will restore full diplomatic relations and reopen embassies July 20

(WASHINGTON) — President Barack Obama announced Wednesday that the U.S. and Cuba will reopen their embassies in Havana and Washington, heralding a “new chapter” in relations after a half-century of hostility.

“We don’t have to be imprisoned by the past,” Obama said from White House Rose Garden. “Americans and Cubans alike are ready to move forward.”

Cuban television broadcast Obama’s statement live, underscoring the new spirit.

The embassy agreement marks the biggest tangible step toward normalizing relations since the surprise announcement in December that the U.S. and Cuba were restarting diplomatic ties. The posts in Washington and Havana are scheduled to open July 20, Cuba’s Foreign Ministry said.

Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Cuba for the opening of the U.S. Embassy.

For Obama, ending the U.S. freeze with Cuba is central to his foreign policy legacy as he nears the end of his presidency. Obama has long touted the value of direct engagement with global foes and has argued that the U.S. economic embargo on the communist island just 90 miles south of Florida was ineffective.

The president on Wednesday reiterated his call for Congress to lift the embargo, which he said has failed to bring political change in Cuba. However, he faces stiff resistance from Republicans, as well as some Democrats, who say he is prematurely rewarding a government that engages in serious human rights abuses.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said in a statement that opening a U.S. Embassy in Cuba “will do nothing to help the Cuban people and is just another trivial attempt for President Obama to go legacy shopping.”

The president also will face strong opposition in Congress to spending any taxpayer dollars for building or refurbishing an embassy in Havana. Congress would have to approve any administration request to spend money on an embassy.

The U.S. cut off diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961 after Fidel Castro’s revolution. The U.S. spent decades trying to either actively overthrow the Cuban government or isolate the island, including toughening the economic embargo first imposed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Since the late 1970s, the United States and Cuba have operated diplomatic missions called interests sections in each other’s capitals. The missions are technically under the protection of Switzerland, and do not enjoy the same status as embassies.

Ahead of Obama’s remarks, the top U.S. diplomat in Havana delivered a letter from the White House to Cuba about restoring embassies in the countries’ respective capitals. U.S. Interests Section chief Jeffrey DeLaurentis arrived at the Cuban Foreign Ministry in Havana on Wednesday morning to hand-deliver the message.

In a highly unusual move, Cuban state television broadcast Obama’s remarks live with translation in Spanish.

While the opening of embassies marks a major milestone in the thaw between the U.S. and Cuba, significant issues remain as the countries look to normalize relations. Among them: talks on human rights; demands for compensation for confiscated American properties in Havana and damages to Cuba from the embargo; and possible cooperation on law enforcement, including the touchy topic of U.S. fugitives sheltering in Havana.

Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the opening of embassies was part of the administration’s “common sense approach to Cuba.” However, he called for Cuba to recognize that it is out of step with the international community on human rights.

“Arrests and detentions of dissidents must cease and genuine political pluralism is long overdue,” Cardin said in a statement.

Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro met in April during a regional summit, marking the first time U.S. and Cuban leaders have met in person since 1958.

For Obama, the embassy announcements come amid what the White House sees as one of the strongest stretches of his second term. He scored major legislative and legal victories last week, with Congress giving him fast-track authority for an Asia-Pacific free trade deal and the Supreme Court upholding a key provision of his health care law.

The court also ruled in favor of gay marriage nationwide, an outcome Obama supported.

___

Associated Press writer Peter Orsi in Havana contributed to this report.

TIME Cuba

U.S., Cuba to Announce Plan to Open Embassies

File photo of U.S. President Obama greeting Cuban President Castro during the Summit of the Americas in Panama City,
Jonathan Ernst—Reuters President Barack Obama shakes hands with Cuba's President Raul Castro as they hold a bilateral meeting during the Summit of the Americas in Panama City, Panama on April 11, 2015.

Another major milestone in the U.S.-Cuban thaw

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama will announce Wednesday that the U.S. and Cuba have finalized an agreement to reopen embassies in each other’s capitals, a major step in ending hostilities between the Cold War foes, a senior administration official said.

The U.S. and Cuba have been negotiating the reestablishment of embassies following the historic December announcement that they would move to restore ties after a half-century of animosity.

For Obama, ending the U.S. freeze with Cuba is central to his foreign policy legacy as he nears the end of his presidency. Obama has long touted the value of direct engagement with global foes and has argued that the U.S. embargo on the communist island just 90 miles south of Florida was ineffective.

Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are expected to speak Wednesday morning about the embassy openings. The official insisted on anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter ahead of the president.

Since the late 1970s, the United States and Cuba have operated diplomatic missions called interests sections in each other’s capitals. The missions are technically under the protection of Switzerland, and do not enjoy the same status as full embassies.

While the opening of embassies marks a major milestone in the thaw between the U.S. and Cuba, significant issues remain as the countries look to normalize relations. Among them: talks on human rights; demands for compensation for confiscated American properties in Havana and damages to Cuba from the embargo; and possible cooperation on law enforcement, including the touchy topic of U.S. fugitives sheltering in Havana.

Obama also wants Congress to repeal the economic embargo on Cuba, though he faces resistance from Republicans and some Democrats. Those opposed to normalizing relations with Cuba say Obama is prematurely rewarding a regime that engages in serious human rights abuses.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said in a statement that opening a U.S. embassy in Cuba “will do nothing to help the Cuban people and is just another trivial attempt for President Obama to go legacy shopping.”

Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the opening of embassies was part of the administration’s “common sense approach to Cuba.” However, he called for Cuba to recognize that it is out of step with the international community on human rights.

“Arrests and detentions of dissidents must cease and genuine political pluralism is long overdue,” Cardin said in a statement.

Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro met in April during a regional summit, marking the first time U.S. and Cuban leaders have met in person since 1958.

TIME Cuba

The Hazy Future for Cuban Cigars

TIME-Cuba-Cover
TIME

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 Cuba

Elian Gonzalez Wants to Visit the U.S.

Elian Gonzalez attends an official event with Cuba's President Raul Castro, unseen, in Havana, June 30, 2010.
Adalberto Roque—ASSOCIATED PRESS Elian Gonzalez attends an official event with Cuba's President Raul Castro, unseen, in Havana, Wednesday, June 30, 2010.

He'd like to come back as a tourist

Elian Gonzalez, the boy who made headlines as the center of a tug-of-war between the U.S. and Cuba, would now like to return to the U.S. for a visit, he told ABC News.

Gonzalez was discovered off the coast of Florida at age 6 in 1999 after the boat he was traveling on with his mother and others from Cuba to the U.S. capsized. His relatives in Miami tried to keep him in the United States, but his father wanted him back in Cuba. Eventually, he was taken from his American family members and returned to his father.

“To the American people, first I say thank you for the love they give me,” Gonzalez told ABC News. “I want the time to give my love to American people.” Gonzalez, now 21 years old, said he’d like to visit the U.S. as a tourist.

Read more at ABC News

MONEY Travel

New Ways to Visit Cuba Coming This Summer

It's still a little tricky to visit Cuba, but more options for air travel and cruises will be available in the next few months.

TIME Innovation

How the U.S. Can Get Cuba’s Cancer Vaccine

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

These are today's best ideas

1. Cuba has a treatment for lung cancer, and now we can get our hands on it.

By Neel V. Patel in Wired

2. There won’t be an Uber for everything.

By Boris Wertz in Fortune

3. Stop climbing Mount Everest.

By Jan Morris in the New Statesman

4. Move over rooftop solar. Rooftop algae can generate power, cut CO2 and produce oxygen.

By Web Urbanist

5. Phantom flushing wastes water, and here’s how to fix it.

By Marika Shioiri-Clark in the Los Angeles Times

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Vatican

Pope Francis and Raul Castro to Meet at the Vatican

Pope Francis smiles as he arrives to lead his open-air weekly audience in St. Peter's square on April 29, 2015 at the Vatican.
Vincenzo Pinto—AFP/Getty Images Pope Francis smiles as he arrives to lead his open-air weekly audience in St. Peter's square on April 29, 2015 at the Vatican.

Pope Francis will receive Cuba’s president Raúl Castro at the Vatican on Sunday morning, May 10, the Holy See announced on Tuesday. The meeting will be “strictly private,” according to a statement from the Holy See Press Office, and the two heads of state will meet in the study of the Paul VI Audience Hall.

The meeting comes as Pope Francis plans to visit the Caribbean island in September en route to the United States. The pontiff also helped to broker a deal easing relations between the United States and Cuba in December, an appeal that a senior U.S. administration official at the time called “very rare.”

“As we already know, President Raúl Castro has publicly thanked the Pope for his role in fostering the rapprochement between Cuba and the United States of America,” Fr. Federico Lombardi, SJ, director of the Holy See Press Office, said in the statement.

TIME fashion

What To Wear on Your Vacation to Cuba

Inspiration from a 1950s LIFE photo shoot on Cuba's beaches

Since travel restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba were eased in January, Americans have begun plotting to visit the country before outside influence threatens to dull its history. Though American travelers need a reason other than tourism to make the trip—business or family visits, for example—that doesn’t mean many haven’t already yanked the suitcase from the closet and started digging for the passport.

But what to wear once you arrive on the island’s pristine beaches? These beach fashions from a 1950s LIFE photo shoot in Cuba are a good place to start. Gordon Parks took the photos in 1958, the year before American imports to Cuba ceased and, consequently, the year of a good portion of the Cadillacs and Thunderbirds that still cruise Havana streets. With its vibrant colors and flattering cuts, this beachwear is prime for a comeback—perhaps with the exception of the technicolor Pippi Longstocking wigs.

Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.

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