TIME diplomacy

15 Famous Cuban-Americans

Just 90 miles away from the United States, there are plenty of cross-cultural influences between the US and Cuba - despite political differences. Take a look at 15 famous Cuban-Americans whose heritage might surprise you

TIME diplomacy

The Vatican Helped Seal U.S.-Cuba Deal

Hosted secret talks between the two nations

The Vatican played a key role in securing the release of an American contractor held in Cuba for five years and in setting the stage for a cooling of relations between the two countries, officials said Wednesday.

Pope Francis encouraged the neighbors, who have not had diplomatic relations since the rise of Fidel Castro in 1961, to negotiate a deal, and even hosted secret talks at the Vatican between the two nations, Obama Administration officials said. Canada hosted many of the negotiations, until the final meeting at the Vatican.

The deal to release Alan Gross was finalized in a call between President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro, but Obama noted that the Vatican was instrumental in brokering the make-up.

“Pope Francis personally issued an appeal in a letter that he sent to President Obama and to President Raul Castro calling on them to resolve the case of Alan Gross and the cases of the three Cubans who have been imprisoned here in the United States, and also encouraging the united states and cuba to pursue a closer relationship,” an official said, calling the papal letter “very rare. … The Vatican then hosted the U.S. and Cuban delegations where we were able to review the commitments that we are making today.”

MORE: What to know about Alan Gross

-Additional reporting by Zeke J Miller / Washington

TIME Foreign Policy

U.S. and Cuba Move to Thaw Relations After Prisoner Exchange

Alan Gross's release brings an immediate cooling of tensions

The U.S. will begin efforts to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba and will open an embassy on the island nation following the release of an American government subcontractor and a swap of intelligence assets, President Barack Obama said Wednesday. It marks the most significant change in the U.S.-Cuba relationship since the Cuban revolution.

“Neither the American nor Cuban people are served by a rigid policy that’s rooted in events that took place before most of us were born,” Obama said in a televised address. “I believe we can do more to support the Cuban people and our values through engagement. After all, these 50 years have shown the isolation has not worked. It’s time for a new approach.”

Following a year of secret back-channel talks in Canada and at the Vatican, and culminating with a historic nearly hour-long call between Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro on Tuesday, the Cuban government released 65-year-old Alan Gross on Wednesday on humanitarian grounds. His release clears the way for a broad relaxation of the 53-year U.S. embargo on Cuba.

In a prisoner swap, Cuba released an unnamed U.S. intelligence asset who has been imprisoned for 20 years, while the U.S. government released the final three members of the spy ring known as the Cuban Five remaining in federal prison.

A senior Administration official said the U.S. embassy would open “as soon as possible” in Havana.

Gross departed Cuba on Wednesday morning on a U.S. government plane, and arrived at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington, D.C., shortly after 11 a.m., accompanied by members of Congress and his wife who had traveled to retrieve him aboard a U.S. Air Force plane. A Cuban court convicted Gross of espionage in 2011 and sentenced him to 15 years in prison for carrying communications devices into Cuba while working as as a subcontractor for U.S. Agency for International Development setting up Internet access in local communities. According to his attorney, Gross had been in deteriorating health while in prison.

Speaking at a news conference, Gross thanked Obama, said he supports the President’s policy shift and stressed he harbors no ill will toward the Cuban people.

“It pains me to see them treated so unjustly as a consequence of two governments’ mutually belligerent policies,” Gross said. “Five and a half decades of history shows us that such belligerence inhibits better judgment. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

“This is a game-changer which I fully support,” Gross added. “I truly hope we can get beyond these mutually belligerent policies.”

MORE: What to know about Alan Gross

The Obama Administration is maximizing the ability of Americans to travel to Cuba within the limits of the American travel ban, the President is “doing everything in his authority to facilitate travel within the limits of the law,” an official said, adding that Obama would support congressional efforts to lift the ban. Obama also announced that his Administration is easing economic and financial restrictions on Cuba, including increasing permitted American exports, as well as raising the cap on remittances. U.S. financial institutions will also be allowed to open accounts at Cuban banks to process permitted transactions, and U.S. credit and debit cards will be permitted for use in Cuba for the first time. Obama is also directing Secretary of State John Kerry to launch an immediate review of the 1982 designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, in consultation with intelligence agencies.

“I do not expect the changes I’m announcing today to bring about a transformation of Cuban society overnight,” Obama said.

Obama cannot unilaterally lift the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba.

“I look forward to engaging Congress in an honest and serious debate about lifting the embargo,” he said.

In an address that took place while Obama was speaking, Castro said he welcomes the cooling of relations between the two countries, but that differences remain that the countries need to learn to live with “in a civilized manner.”

Obama has twice previously relaxed restrictions on Cuba, in 2009 and 2011, opening the door for Americans to visit family members in Cuba and allowing travel for religious, educational and cultural endeavors. Authorized American travelers will now be able to import up to $400 in Cuban goods into the U.S., including $100 in tobacco and alcohol products. But senior Administration officials said there would be no immediate change to the ban on imports of Cuban cigars and other products for retail purposes.

Obama’s announcement was quickly criticized by Republicans and Democratic lawmakers who have long defended the embargo. Outgoing Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez (D., N.J.) blasted Obama’s decision as having “vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government.”

“This asymmetrical trade will invite further belligerence toward Cuba’s opposition movement and the hardening of the government’s dictatorial hold on its people,” Menendez said.

American officials contend that the U.S. policy toward Cuba was antiquated and ineffective, failing to bring down the Castro regime after more than 50 years. Obama said he respects the “passion” of those who may disagree with his decision, but said he believes now is the time for a change. “I do not believe that we can do the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result,” he said.

In coordination with the American announcements, the Cuban government will announce that it will free 53 prisoners deemed by the U.S. to be political prisoners, American officials said. Additionally, the Cuban government has told the U.S. it intends to expand Internet connectivity for its citizens. But despite objections by the Cuban government, the U.S. will continue to fund so-called democracy programming in Cuba, meant to promote human rights and support the free flow of information into the communist country.

American officials praised the role of Canada and the Vatican, particularly Pope Francis, in helping bring about the agreement.

“Pope Francis personally issued an appeal in a letter that he sent to President Obama and to President Raúl Castro calling on them to resolve the case of Alan Gross and the cases of the three Cubans who have been imprisoned here in the United States, and also encouraging the United States and Cuba to pursue a closer relationship,” an official said, calling the papal letter “very rare … The Vatican then hosted the U.S. and Cuban delegations where we were able to review the commitments that we are making today.”

In a statement earlier this month marking the five-year anniversary of Gross’s arrest, Obama said that if the Castro-led Cuban government released him it would set the stage for other reconciliation efforts.

“The Cuban Government’s release of Alan on humanitarian grounds would remove an impediment to more constructive relations between the United States and Cuba,” Obama said.

TIME North Korea

American in North Korea Said to Denounce U.S.

A man who identifies himself as Arturo Pierre Martine, a 29-year-old American raised in El Paso, Texas speaks at a press conference in North Korea's capital Pyongyang on Dec. 14, 2014.
A man who identifies himself as Arturo Pierre Martine, a 29-year-old American raised in El Paso, Texas speaks at a press conference in North Korea's capital Pyongyang on Dec. 14, 2014. AP/Kyodo

His mother said he's mentally unstable

A Texas man who apparently entered North Korea illegally earlier this year has denounced American foreign policy in a lengthy news conference, according to a report Sunday, and plans to seek asylum in Venezuela.

The man, who identified himself as Arturo Pierre Martinez, 29, claimed he ventured into the reclusive country to provide what he described as “very valuable and disturbing information” regarding the U.S. to authorities in the isolated country, according to Reuters, citing footage of the statement released by North Korea’s state-run news agency. Martinez, who said he has been living in a hotel, thanked authorities for treating him well.

Martinez’s mother, Patricia Eugenia Martinez, told CNN that her son is mentally unstable and had attempted to enter North Korea before.

The State Department acknowledged Sunday that it was aware of the situation and was ready “to provide all possible consular assistance.” A statement from Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf neither confirmed Martinez’s identity, nor noted his comments.

[Reuters]

TIME diplomacy

U.S. Couple Held in Qatar Can Leave, Diplomat Says

Matthew Huang, Grace Huang
Matthew, left, and Grace Huang, an American couple charged with starving to death their 8-year-old adopted daughter, speak to the press outside the a courthouse before their trial in Doha, Qatar, Thursday, March 27, 2014. Osama Faisal—AP

After their daughter died from complications of an eating disorder

The government of Qatar will allow an American couple to leave the country after an appeals judge dismissed their conviction in the starving death of their eight-year-old daughter, the U.S. ambassador said Tuesday.

Qatar had held the couple, Matthew and Grace Huang of Los Angeles, even after the appeals judge dismissed the conviction on Sunday. But Ambassador Dana Shell Smith said that the travel ban had been lifted, and that the Huangs can leave Wednesday.

The Huangs were sentenced to three years in prison in March after the January 2013 death of their daughter, Gloria, who they said had died from…

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

TIME diplomacy

Iran Nuclear Talks Expected to Hit Deadline Without Deal

U.S. Secretary of State Kerry steps out as Britain's Foreign Secretary Hammond, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, Iranian FM Zarif and German FM Steinmeier, French FM Fabius, EU envoy Ashton and Chinese FM Yi pose in Vienna
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry steps out as Britain's Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, EU envoy Catherine Ashton and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi pose for photographers during their meeting in Vienna on Nov. 24, 2014. Pool/Reuters

Deadline was Monday but indications are talks will continue

Negotiations to curb Iran’s nuclear program will likely end in a stalemate on Monday, according to reports, but could resume one month after what had been called a deadline for striking a deal.

The New York Times, citing an unnamed Western diplomat, reports that Western negotiators were encouraged by “progress made this weekend” in Vienna and were likely to reconvene in December. But officials offered conflicting accounts of how far the negotiators had come toward reaching an agreement.

President Barack Obama called the differences “significant” in a Sunday television interview, but diplomats offered more optimistic assessments on Monday.

MORE: Iranians ponder economic future as nuclear talks near deadline

One Western diplomat told the Associated Press that the negotiators should complete a broad agreement by March 1 and settle the final details by July 1. Those comments were at odds with Secretary of State John Kerry’s insistence that the objective of the talks was to complete an outline of a final accord by Monday.

Western nations agreed to relax sanctions against Iran in July in exchange for new limits on the nation’s nuclear program and an extension of talks on a final status agreement until this Monday.

TIME Iran

Iranian Officials Seem Cautiously Optimistic About the Nuclear Talks

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, attends a meeting in Tehran, Sept. 7, 2014.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, attends a meeting in Tehran, Sept. 7, 2014. AP

Releases in Iran's state-controlled media seem to indicate the country is preparing for a deal at the nuclear talks in Vienna

There’s no shortage of pessimism about whether Iran and six world powers can reach a comprehensive deal on the country’s nuclear program by Nov. 24, the self-imposed deadline. Time is short, and as a senior U.S. official said before leaving for Vienna, where the talks began, “we have some very serious gaps to close.” But those looking for optimism need search no further then Tehran’s official media. Tightly controlled by the regime that is the ultimate authority on any pact, the country’s media may be preparing the Iranian public for an agreement.

While hardliners in Tehran grump about the talks, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has clearly aligned himself with the negotiators—even posting an interview with one of the diplomats, deputy foreign minister Abbas Araqchi, on his personal website this week

“Araqchi basically said ‘We’re winning this, we’re not giving in,’” says Abbas Milani, who heads the Iranian studies department at Stanford University. Milani was astonished by the post. Never before had Khamenei’s office made the site a forum for another official, even one understood, as Araqchi is, to be serving as the Leader’s personal representative. It signaled a full embrace of the talks by the man who, as his title makes clear, holds ultimate power in the Islamic Republic.

“The headline was that the leader has had oversight of the entire negotiating process,” says Milani. “It’s clear to me this was an attempt to make a claim for victory and dissuade the idea that [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani is doing this on his own and will get all the credit.”

On the same day as that post, the man Khamenei named to lead Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps was widely quoted on government outlets as saying that a nuclear deal was consistent with the ideals of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which remains the litmus test for all government endeavors.

Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander, also appeared to prepare the public for elements of a deal that may not look like a win for Iran. “If it appears that there are aspects of this where we’re accepted humiliation, first of all it’s not true — we are winning,” Jafari insisted. “But those perceptions of humiliation are because of the clumsy management and inexperience of some of our negotiators.”

The goal, the commander said, was the removal of the economic sanctions imposed on Iran by Washington and other world powers. “God willing, this goal will be reached,” Jafari said.

There was more. Ali Larijani, speaker of the Iranian parliament, which is dominated by conservatives, spoke of “our spirit of resistance” taught by Khamenei and his predecessor Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei as “the reason or our success, and why in spite of all efforts by the enemy they could not stop our progress on the nuclear front.”

“It is possible to have a deal,” Larijani added. “It’s just important for the U.S. not to ask for new conditions.”

Some in Iran complained that new conditions are just what the U.S. has indeed demanded. One hardline member of the parliament, or majlis, claimed to have seen the contents of an eight-page proposal Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly showed Iranian negotiators in Oman the previous week, and compared it to the Treaty of Turkmenchy, the 1828 capitulation to Russia that Iranians consider the epitome of humiliation, losing not only territory in the Caucasus but even the right to navigate on the Caspian Sea, which forms Iran’s northern border.

But to Iran watchers, what’s truly significant is that such grumbling is only background noise in what appears to be a concerted effort by Iran’s top echelon to set the foundation for a deal—if not on Monday, then if the talks are extended, as they may well be. There may be more riding on it than just escape from economically ruinous sanctions. The New York Times on Thursday quoted Amir Mohebbian, a conservative adviser long tied to the Leader’s office, predicting a nuclear deal as a harbinger of a strategic change in Iran’s entire political orientation.

“If there is a deal, and if it is good, the entire system will go along with it,” Mohebbian said in Tehran. “There will be a huge political shift after the deal. It is my conviction that those who make decisions within the system want it to be alive and supported. For survival, we need to change.”

It’s just such a change that President Obama has repeatedly said a nuclear deal might herald, opening the way for Iran to end its pariah status and return to “the community of nations.” So it’s possible Mohebbian is saying no more than what the administration wants to hear. But the expectations of a deal are running high in Iran, and the government appears to be doing much less than it might to discourage them.

TIME diplomacy

Kerry to Join Iran Nuclear Talks in Vienna

State Department says Kerry going to "check in" on the high-level nuclear negotiations

(PARIS) — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Vienna later Thursday to join high-level nuclear negotiations with Iran as a deadline for an agreement fast approaches.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Kerry would be going to the Austrian capital from Paris to “check in” on the talks. It was not yet determined how long he would stay in Vienna, leaving open the possibility that he might not remain until Monday’s deadline for a deal. Kerry is to meet with the U.S. negotiating team in Vienna late Thursday before scheduling meetings with other participants.

Kerry had been expected to join the Vienna negotiations, but the timing of his arrival at the talks had been uncertain until shortly after he arrived in Paris for talks with the Saudi and French foreign ministers after two days of similar meetings in London with his British and Omani counterparts. Kerry is to hold a news conference in Paris after seeing French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and before departing for Vienna.

With Monday’s deadline for a deal looming, Kerry has embarked on a frenzy of high-stakes diplomacy in a last-minute push to secure an agreement — or at least prevent the process from collapsing after talks were already extended once.

Senior negotiators in Vienna have spent three days racing against the clock to forge a pact over the next five days that would prevent Iran from reaching the capability to produce atomic weapons.

Despite Kerry’s efforts, though, signs increasingly pointed to the Nov. 24 deadline passing without a deal and the negotiations being extended a second time.

In London on Tuesday and Wednesday, Kerry met with Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi of Oman, a key bridge between Washington and Tehran, a senior U.S. official said. Bin Alawi was in Tehran last weekend.

Oman is not party to the negotiations among Iran, the U.S., Britain, China, France, Russia, the European Union and Germany. But it is unique among the Gulf Arab states for the close ties it maintains with Iran, having hosted high-level nuclear talks earlier this month and served as the site of secret U.S.-Iranian gatherings dating back to 2012. Those earlier discussions laid the groundwork for an interim nuclear agreement reached a year ago, which the so-called P5+1 countries now hope to cement with a comprehensive accord in Vienna.

In Washington on Wednesday, President Barack Obama’s nominee to be Kerry’s deputy at the State Department said he believed it would be difficult to meet the deadline.

“It’s not impossible,” said Tony Blinken, currently Obama’s deputy national security adviser. “It depends entirely on whether Iran is willing to take steps it must take to convince us, to convince our partners that its program would be for entirely peaceful purposes. As we speak, we’re not there.”

Peter Wittig, Germany’s ambassador to the U.S., wouldn’t rule out an extension and said a nuclear deal could lead to better relations between Iran and world powers on regional crises in Syria and Lebanon.

“If these negotiations fail, there won’t be any winners,” Wittig told reporters in Washington.

Kerry’s meetings with Fabius and Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal are considered critical because French objections last year delayed the adoption of an interim agreement by several weeks, and Saudi Arabia remains deeply concerned about the potential for its archrival Iran to win concessions from the West.

The Obama administration also is trying to satisfy the concerns of Republican and many Democratic lawmakers at home.

Republican senators sent a letter to the White House on Wednesday urging the administration against trying to circumvent Congress in any deal with Iran. “Unless the White House genuinely engages with Congress, we see no way that any agreement consisting of your administration’s current proposals to Iran will endure,” said the letter, which was signed by all 45 Senate Republicans.

In a twist, many in Congress who previously opposed further extensions of talks with Iran now see that route as a preferable to an agreement that doesn’t do enough to cut off possible Iranian pathways toward a nuclear bomb.

Republicans in particular want more time so they can attempt to pass new sanctions legislation that would pressure Iran into greater concessions. Their plan is to bring up a package of conditional penalties after January, when they take the Senate majority, according to GOP Senate aides who weren’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter and demanded anonymity.

Some Democrats are on board with that effort, though Obama has threatened to veto any new sanctions threatening the diplomacy.

Even Israel, which has been among the most hostile to the West’s diplomatic overtures toward Tehran, is suggesting it is amenable to an extension. The option would allow time for a better agreement to be negotiated through additional economic sanctions on Iran, a senior Israeli official said.

___

Associated Press writers Bradley Klapper and Lara Jakes in Washington and Tia Goldenberg in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

TIME climate change

China Shows It’s Ready to Grow Up on Climate Change

President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a press conference at the Great Hall of People on Nov. 12, 2014 in Beijing.
President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a press conference at the Great Hall of People on Nov. 12, 2014 in Beijing. Feng Li—Getty Images

China lives up to its responsibilities on global warming

The U.S. diplomats wandering around the Copenhagen airport in the aftermath of the 2009 U.N. climate summit looked like the walking dead. With reason—those talks, billed as the most important climate negotiations ever, were pure torture for almost everyone involved, just barely saved from total collapse by the last-minute creation of the relatively weak Copenhagen Protocol. And while there was plenty of blame to go around, including for the U.S., much of it was directed at China, which consistently blocked negotiations throughout the summit and almost managed to torpedo the protocol. No wonder the American negotiators looked so exhausted—they’d just spent a fortnight grappling with a country that seemed firmly opposed to doing anything about global warming.

But China, it seems, has changed. The climate deal worked out between Washington and Beijing on Wednesday—you can see the details in this post by Emily Rauhala— won’t come close to saving the planet on its own. No, the deal isn’t binding, but few international agreements really are.

While together China and the U.S. account for 40% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, this marks the first time that the world’s two biggest carbon emitters sat down and agreed together to limits on future greenhouse gas emissions, however voluntary. And more importantly, it marks what seems to be a very different approach by Beijing on international climate diplomacy—and perhaps on diplomacy more generally.

As Michael Levi at the Council on Foreign Relations notes, the fact that Beijing chose to work together with the U.S.—usually an antagonist on climate and other issues—may be more meaningful than the emission targets themselves:

China has typically gone out of its way to assert its independence in anything climate-related. That approach would usually have led it to announce major goals like these in a clearly unilateral context – even if they were developed in tandem with the United States. Rolling them out together with the United States says that China is increasingly comfortable being seen to act as part of an international effort.

Environmentalists hope that the announcement from Beijing will inject a little momentum into flagging global climate negotiations, which begin shortly in Lima and are meant to culminate with a real global deal in Paris at the end of 2015. Perhaps. But while it might seem as if a problem like global warming can only be solved with a global deal that covers every country, the reality is that just a handful of countries account for nearly all greenhouse gas emissions—China and the U.S. first among them. What they do—alone or in concert—is what will ultimately matter.

There is no shortage of skeptics picking apart the U.S.-China deal—David Stout has a good roundup of them here. Any time governments make promises about action they won’t carry out for more than 15 years—long after today’s leaders are out of office—there’s reason to be skeptical. Climate diplomacy is like dieting: tomorrow is always a lot easier than today.

However, the very fact that China is publicly willing, in concert with the U.S., to dedicate itself to emissions targets that will be challenging is a sign that there is political will in Beijing to move on climate change, as well as political confidence that technological means will be there to do so without cramping the country’s all-important economic growth. It’s a sign, as Fred Kaplan writes in Slate, that China understands that “with great power comes at least some responsibility.”

That fact, more than the specifics of emissions cuts or timeframes, is what really made the China-U.S. climate deal historic.

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