TIME Cuba

Fidel Castro Sends Word That He’s Alive — and Cautiously Optimistic About Talks With the U.S.

El Capitolio, the National Capitol Building in Havana, Dec. 2014.
El Capitolio, the National Capitol Building in Havana, Dec. 2014. Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME

The former Cuban leader and lifelong revolutionary makes it clear that he won't stand in the way of diplomacy with Washington

The letter from Fidel Castro that surfaced on the front page of the state newspaper Granma on Tuesday served two purposes. The first was proof of life. When you’re the founder of a state and your physical condition is subject to almost constant rumor, you don’t arrange to be photographed holding up a copy of a current newspaper to prove that you remain alive. You remark on events that have recently transpired, and make that front page your own.

Which was of course the other thing the senior Castro, 88, accomplished: leaving his mark — however belatedly, guardedly and obtusely — on events that have largely been out of his hands since he handed over power to his brother Raúl in 2006, owing to failing health. Tuesday’s remarks were Fidel’s first since the momentous simultaneous declaration on Dec. 19 by Raúl and President Barack Obama that Cuba and the U.S. would begin to re-establish diplomatic relations, and work together toward removing the more than 50-year-old American economic embargo.

In the meantime a senior State Department delegation had already come to Havana on Jan. 21 and left amid smiles and mutual avowals of continuing the rapprochement. In his public letter Fidel was less effusive, but made it clear that he wouldn’t stand in the way of new diplomatic ties. “I don’t trust the policy of the United States, nor have I exchanged a word with them, but this does not mean I reject a pacific solution to the conflicts,” Castro wrote, in remarks addressed in his name to a student federation at the University of Havana. “We shall always defend the cooperation and friendship between all people, among them our political adversaries,” the letter went on. “With this spirit, I have fought and will continue fighting until my last breath.”

The tones of skepticism, even amid the outpouring of enthusiasm with which ordinary Cubans received word of the rapprochement, shouldn’t be surprising. After reaching out in vain to the Eisenhower Administration after Fidel and his fellow rebels ousted the U.S.-backed Cuban government in 1959, no leader faced more persistent efforts by the U.S. to remove him and undo his revolution. There were direct military attacks, planned assassinations and a long string of assaults by U.S.-backed surrogates spanning more than a decade. Castro’s resilience and increasingly proud defiance of Washington gave him unique standing on the world stage — and made him ever more reviled by the Cuban exiles in the U.S. who loathed his socialist system and often brutal repression of dissidents and rivals.

Today there’s no disputing who is in charge in Cuba. Nearly a decade after taking power, Raúl has brought in his own people, and gradually but steadily pushed for pragmatic changes that have eased the economic hardships that defined Cuban life in the years after the Soviet Union abruptly withdrew its wholesale support at the end of the Cold War. Fidel said as much in his statement, noting that as President, the 83-year-old Raúl “has taken the pertinent steps in accordance with his prerogatives and the powers given to him by the National Assembly the Communist Party of Cuba.” But opening to market forces also threatens the system of social equality that was a hallmark of the Castro regime — a risk that likely accounts for much of the wariness evident in Fidel’s missive.

Fidel, who hasn’t spoken in public in years, is clearly not well. He remains at home on his ranch on the western outskirts of the capital, his health widely believed to be fragile at best. After a flurry of rumors a fortnight ago that he had suffered a fatal stroke, he sent a letter to the soccer legend Diego Maradona, an old friend, saying he was very much alive. (The confusion was due in part to the very real death earlier this month of Fidel Castro Odinga, the son of Kenya’s opposition leader.) But as the embodiment of the Revolution, the Bearded One retains the power of paterfamilias status, and perhaps a good deal more, among ordinary Cubans.

“I’ve got a lot of faith in my government,” said Caridad Alfonso, 43, at a beer garden along the shore after finishing her day as a general practitioner in Havana. “We are Fidelistas. We love Fidel even though he’s not the President any more and we follow Raúl.”

But she welcomed the opening to the U.S., especially as framed by both Raúl and Obama and their diplomats, who make frequent mentions of mutual respect and sovereignty, as well as “profound disagreements.”

“Now we’re equal,” Alfonso said. “It’s a good beginning.” And Fidel Castro may be around to see the end as well.

TIME State of the Union 2015

These Are the Funniest Memes From the State of the Union

Few were safe from becoming a joke on social media

While pundits and political operatives dissected President Barack Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address, the quick-witted citizens of Twitter flourished in the abundance of meme-able moments Tuesday night.

Here are some of the highlights.

  • Biden’s Reaction

    Not sure if the Vice President knew he was making the face of a rapper’s hype-man as the President spoke.

  • Speaker Boehner is Not Impressed

    Like the Vice President’s, House Speaker John Boehner’s facial expressions are always an easy target for critique during the State of the Union

  • Secretary Moniz Gets Meme’d

    Neither Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz nor his amazing hair got enough air time during the State of the Union

  • First Lady Fashion

    First Lady Michelle Obama channelled the look of another “First Lady” last night, Alicia Florrick of CBS’s The Good Wife.

  • The President’s “Drops-Mic” Moment

    The moment that stole the show gets the Vine treatment, complete with dad-dancing

  • Rand Paul Joins In

    Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul joined in on the fun, using a Willy Wonka meme to question the President’s plan for free community college

  • The State of the Union Is…

    Though Obama said Tuesday the state of our union is “strong,” someone suggested a word that could better connect with the youth

  • The Suit Returns

    White House Senior Advisor Dan Pfeiffer did a little pre-speech trolling, suggesting the President would be wearing his infamous tan-suit during the evening’s address

  • Joni Ernst’s Shoes

    During the official Republican response, Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst recalled covering her shoes with bread bags to protect them when she was growing up, which spawned arguably one of the funniest memes of the night

  • A Presidential Wink

    POTUS flashes a wink and a smile

    Read next: The State of the Union Brought Out the Troll in Everyone

    Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Environment

A Bad Day for Climate Change Deniers … and the Planet

Deeper, hotter, sicker—and the oceans are only part of it
Deeper, hotter, sicker—and the oceans are only part of it Roc Canals Photography; Getty Images/Flickr Select

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

Three new studies offer new proof of how bad the earth's fever has gotten

It’s not often that the climate change deniers get clobbered three times in just two days. But that’s what happened with the release of a trio of new studies that ought to serve as solid body blows to the fading but persistent fiction that human-mediated warming is somehow a hoax. Good news for the forces of reason, however, is bad news for the planet—especially the oceans.

The most straightforward of the three studies was a report from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) confirming what a lot of people who sweltered through 2014 already suspected: the year is entering the record books as the hottest ever since reliable records started being kept in 1880—and the results weren’t even close.

Average global surface temperature worldwide was 58.24ºF (14.58º C) — surpassing previous records set in 2005 and 2007 — and making 2014 a full 2ºF (1.1ºC) hotter than the average for the entire 20th century. And before you say 2ºF doesn’t seem like much, think about whether you’d prefer to run a fever of 99ºF or 101ºF. The planet is every bit as sensitive to small variations as you are.

“Today’s news is a clear and undeniable warning for all of us that we need to cut climate pollution and prepare for what’s coming,” said Lou Leonard, vice president for climate change at the World Wildlife Fund.

When it concerns the ocean, what’s coming may already be here. A sobering study in Nature looked at sea level rise in both the periods from 1901 to 1990 and from 1993 to 2010 in an attempt to sort out a seeming inconsistency: measurements from 622 tide gauges around the world showed that levels had risen 6 in. (15.24 cm) over the past century, but computer models and other tools put the figure at only 5 in. (12.7 cm). Here too, what seems like a little is actually a lot: a single inch of water spread around all of the planet’s oceans and seas represents two quadrillion gallons of water.

This could have meant good news, since it might have indicated that we’d overestimated the impact of melting glaciers and ice caps. But new computer modeling recalculated the degree of sea level rise over the last century and found that the tide gauges had it right all along, and the only thing that was wrong was that sea levels had risen more slowly than believed in the 90 years that followed 1900, and much faster in the 17 years from 1993 to 2010 — close to three times as fast per year. What does that mean in the long term? Perhaps 3 ft. (0.9 m) greater increase by the end of this century if we keep on the way we’re going.

Finally, according to the journal Science, at the same time sea levels are rising higher, marine life forms are growing sicker, with a “major extinction event” a very real possibility. All through the oceans, the signs of ecosystem breakdown are evident: the death of coral reefs, the collapse of fish stocks, the migration of species from waters that have grown too warm for them to the patches that remain cool enough.

What’s more, the increase in the number of massive container ships crossing the oceans has resulted in a growing number of collisions with whales — encounters in which the animals wind up the losers. Seafloor mining and bottom-trawling nets both plunder fish populations and further damage the environment in which deepwater species can live.

“Humans,” wrote the authors of the Science paper, “have already powerfully changed virtually all major marine ecosystems.”

No part of this bad-news trifecta is likely to change the minds of the rump faction of climate deniers — particularly in Washington. Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who is set to assume chairmanship of the committee that oversees science in general and NASA in particular had this to say to CNN about climate change: “The last 15 years, there has been no recorded warming. Contrary to all the theories that they are expounding, there should have been warming over the last 15 years. It hasn’t happened.”

He’s wrong on the facts — as the new temperature readings demonstrate — and wrong on his interpretation of the science which shows that the rate of atmospheric warming has indeed slowed a bit in the past decade and a half. The reason for that seeming happy development is not that climate change isn’t real, but that the oceans, for now, are sopping up more heat than anticipated—see, for example, those migrating fish.

Meantime, Cruz’s Oklahoma colleague Senator James Inhofe is set to become chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. This is the same Inhofe who persists in his very vocal belief that climate change is “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people” and that even if it is true, it might actually be good for the world.

Ultimately, reason will prevail; in the long arc of scientific history it usually does. How much ocean and atmosphere and wildlife we’ll have left when that happens, however, is another matter entirely.

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.

MONEY charitable giving

The Number One Reason Not to Sleep In on Monday

Volunteers paint walls and paint murals all over Coolidge High School during the Martin Luther King Day of Service organized by City Year in honoring the legacy of Dr. King in Washington DC on Monday, January 20, 2014.
Volunteers paint walls and paint murals at Coolidge High School during the Martin Luther King Day of Service in Washington D.C. in 2014. Melina Mara—The Washington Post/Getty Images

You can spend your day away from the office honoring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by volunteering in your community instead.

All government agencies and many private businesses will be closed this Monday to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but don’t let the appeal of a three-day weekend overshadow the purpose of the day.

Established as a federal holiday in 1983, MLK Day was designated a National Day of Service by Congress in 1994. Across the country, volunteer groups turn Monday into “a day on, not a day off” by building community gardens, distributing food, sprucing up schools, and helping the homeless.

If you’re interested in volunteering but don’t know where to begin, websites like volunteermatch.org, idealist.org, and allforgood.org can connect you with opportunities in your area. And if you are in or near one of these eight major U.S. cities, check out this list of resources and nonprofits hosting MLK Day events.

Atlanta

Chicago

Houston

Los Angeles

New York City

Phoenix

Philadelphia

Washington, D.C.

Beyond volunteering, you can also attend or host an America’s Sunday Supper. In the spirit King’s desire to encourage deep personal relationships between people of diverse backgrounds, Sunday Suppers have become an important part of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. If you’re interested in hosting a dinner, which can range in size from large events at community centers to intimate gatherings at local restaurants, the Points of Light Foundation provides toolkits that includes invitations, celebrity chef recipes, and conversation starters.

TIME Washington

Growers Struggle With Glut of Legal Pot in Washington State

Too Much Pot
Ashley Green trims a marijuana flower at the Pioneer Nuggets marijuana-growing facility in Arlington, Wash., on Jan. 13, 2015 Elaine Thompson—AP

The legal pot market isn't flying as high as growers had hoped

(SEATTLE) — Washington’s legal marijuana market opened last summer to a dearth of weed. Some stores periodically closed because they didn’t have pot to sell. Prices were through the roof.

Six months later, the equation has flipped, bringing serious growing pains to the new industry.

A big harvest of sun-grown marijuana from eastern Washington last fall flooded the market. Prices are starting to come down in the state’s licensed pot shops, but due to the glut, growers are — surprisingly — struggling to sell their marijuana. Some are already worried about going belly-up, finding it tougher than expected to make a living in legal weed.

“It’s an economic nightmare,” says Andrew Seitz, general manager at Dutch Brothers Farms in Seattle.

State data show that licensed growers had harvested 31,000 pounds of bud as of Thursday, but Washington’s relatively few legal pot shops have sold less than one-fifth of that. Many of the state’s marijuana users have stuck with the untaxed or much-lesser-taxed pot they get from black market dealers or unregulated medical dispensaries — limiting how quickly product moves off the shelves of legal stores.

“Every grower I know has got surplus inventory and they’re concerned about it,” said Scott Masengill, who has sold half of the 280 pounds he harvested from his pot farm in central Washington. “I don’t know anybody getting rich.”

Officials at the state Liquor Control Board, which regulates marijuana, aren’t terribly concerned.

So far, there are about 270 licensed growers in Washington — but only about 85 open stores for them to sell to. That’s partly due to a slow, difficult licensing process; retail applicants who haven’t been ready to open; and pot business bans in many cities and counties.

The board’s legal pot project manager, Randy Simmons, says he hopes about 100 more stores will open in the next few months, providing additional outlets for the weed that’s been harvested. Washington is always likely to have a glut of marijuana after the outdoor crop comes in each fall, he suggested, as the outdoor growers typically harvest one big crop which they continue to sell throughout the year.

Weed is still pricey at the state’s pot shops — often in the $23-to-$25-per-gram range. That’s about twice the cost at medical dispensaries, but cheaper than it was a few months ago.

Simmons said he expects pot prices to keep fluctuating for the next year and a half: “It’s the volatility of a new marketplace.”

Colorado, the only other state with legal marijuana sales, has a differently structured industry. Regulators have kept a lid on production, though those limits were loosened last fall as part of a planned expansion of the market. Colorado growers still have to prove legal demand for their product, a regulatory curb aimed at preventing excess weed from spilling to other states. The result has been more demand than supply.

In Washington, many growers have unrealistic expectations about how quickly they should be able to recoup their initial investments, Simmons said. And some of the growers complaining about the low prices they’re getting now also gouged the new stores amid shortages last summer.

Those include Seitz, who sold his first crop — 22 pounds — for just under $21 per gram: nearly $230,000 before his hefty $57,000 tax bill. He’s about to harvest his second crop, but this time he expects to get just $4 per gram, when he has big bills to pay.

“We’re running out of money,” he said. “We need to make sales this month to stay operational, and we’re going to be selling at losses.”

Because of the high taxes on Washington’s legal pot, Seitz says stores can never compete with the black market while paying growers sustainable prices.

He and other growers say it’s been a mistake for the state to license so much production while the rollout of legal stores has lagged.

“If it’s a natural bump from the outdoor harvest, that’s one thing,” said Jeremy Moberg, who is sitting on 1,500 pounds of unsold marijuana at his CannaSol Farms in north-central Washington. “If it’s institutionally creating oversupply … that’s a problem.”

Some retailers have been marking up the wholesale price three-fold or more — a practice that has some growers wondering if certain stores aren’t cleaning up as they struggle.

“I got retailers beating me down to sell for black-market prices,” said Fitz Couhig, owner of Pioneer Production and Processing in Arlington.

But two of the top-selling stores in Seattle — Uncle Ike’s and Cannabis City — insist that because of their tax obligations and low demand for high-priced pot, they’re not making any money either, despite each having sales of more than $600,000 per month.

Aaron Varney, a director at Dockside Cannabis, a retail shop in the Seattle suburb of Shoreline, said stores that exploit growers now could get bitten in the long run.

“Right now, the numbers will say that we’re in the driver’s seat,” he said. “But that can change. We’re looking to establish good relationships with the growers we’re dealing with.”

MONEY Inequality

You’ll Never Guess Which State Has the Nation’s Most Unfair Taxes

Washington state may vote progressive, but its taxes are anything but.

When you think of states that hurt the poor and benefit the rich, ultra-progressive Washington state probably doesn’t spring to mind. And yet, according to a new analysis, Washington’s tax system is the most regressive in the nation, placing a disproportionate burden on those with the lowest incomes.

The study, published by the nonpartisan Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, finds the poorest 20% of Washington’s population pay almost 17% of their income in taxes, while the richest 1% pay just 2.4% of their earnings. The middle 60% of earners are taxed slightly more than 10% of their income.

While Washington’s regressive tax structure might seem surprising, it shouldn’t be. The institute observes that virtually every state in the union has a tax system that takes “a much greater share of income from low- and middle-income families than from wealthy families,” a policy the report describes as “fundamentally unfair.”

How some tax systems burden the poor

The most well-known tax to most Americans is probably the federal government’s progressive income tax, the “progressive” part meaning it takes a higher percentage from rich than the poor.

However, states actually gain a large portion of their revenues through regressive taxes, meaning those that disproportionately impact people with low income.

Any tax that asks everyone to pay the same amount—sales tax, for example—is regressive, because by taking “equally” from everyone, it takes a higher percentage of a poor person’s income than takes from a richer individual.

Here’s ITEP’s list of the 10 states that take the biggest tax bite from the least affluent residents:

Screenshot 2015-01-14 11.15.00

States in the report’s “Terrible Ten,” such as Washington, rely heavily on sales tax and excise taxes (taxes on specific products, like gasoline or cigarettes) and less on taxes that rise based on income.

Similarly, the institute’s report also reveals that highly regressive states also don’t levy a personal income tax (in the case of Washington, Florida, South Dakota, and Texas), meaning the state must raise more money through regressive consumption and property taxes.

Even states that do tax personal income sometimes do so in a non-progressive fashion. Pennsylvania has an income tax, but applies the same 3.07% rate to everyone. That might seem fair, but $614 means a lot more to a person making $20,000 than $3,070 does to someone making $100,000, even though both amounts are 3.07% of their respective salaries.

Other states on the list do have a progressive rate structure but have so few tax brackets that the outcome is effectively a flat tax. Kansas, for instance, has only two tax brackets, and married couples making $30,000 or more are taxed at the highest rate.

In either case, the the state generally must rely on other regressive taxes to make up for not taxing wealthier individuals a higher proportion of their income.

How to build a fairer system

States with the fairest tax structures follow a completely different path. Oregon, ranked as one of the least regressive states, relies heavily on a very progressive income tax. That allows it lower its dependence on regressive consumption taxes and eliminate sales tax entirely.

These states also have earned income tax credits (EITCs)—essentially tax refunds targeted toward low-income working families that can give certain households a reduced tax burden or, in some cases, a negative tax bill, meaning the government gives them money. The report describes these credits as offsetting the regressive taxes and helping poor families afford necessities.

Screenshot 2015-01-14 12.56.50

Inconsistent improvement

While some states have made their tax systems more fairer in the past year, many have taken a step back. Since 2013, Delaware and Minnesota have increased income tax rates for high earners, while Colorado, Iowa, and others have beefed up their earned income tax credits. At the same time, multiple states have become less progressive by increasing sales tax or implementing a flat income tax rate.

“The bleak reality,” the report concludes,” is that even among the 25 states and the District of Columbia that have taken steps to reduce the working poor’s tax share by enacting state EITCs, most still require their poorest taxpayers to pay a higher effective tax rate than any other income group.”

Read next: How Obamacare Could Make Tax Filing Trickier This Year

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Cuba

Cuba Frees Three People Believed to be on U.S. Political Prisoner List

Military guards at the Combinado del Este prison in Havana, Cuba in 2013.
Military guards at the Combinado del Este prison in Havana, Cuba in 2013. Franklin Reyes—AP

Cuba has pledged to release 53 political prisoners as part of a deal with Washington

The Cuban government freed three detainees Wednesday in the latest sign of thawing relations between Havana and longtime foe the U.S.

The released trio are believed to be on a list of 53 political prisoners Washington wants to see freed in the socialist Caribbean island-state, Reuters reports.

Cuba has pledged to release all 53 as part of a deal to renew diplomatic relations between the two countries.

According to Cuban human rights activists, the government released 19-year-old Diango Vargas and twin brother Bianco Vargas Martin who were arrested in Dec. 2012 and sentenced to 30 months in prison for threatening a state official and disorderly conduct.

Activists said another man, Enrique Figuerola Miranda, was also freed.

All three were members of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) opposition group.

[Reuters]

TIME Congress

See John Boehner’s Giant Gavel

John Boehner, Nancy Pelosi
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, kisses House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif. after being re-elected to a third term during the opening session of the 114th Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 6, 2015. Pablo Martinez Monsivais—AP

John Boehner took control of the House of Representatives for his third term as Speaker on Tuesday, and as before, he went for an attention-grabbing gavel.

The gavel, which seems to be the legislative equivalent of Thor’s hammer Mjölnir, was made by hand by one of Boehner’s Ohio constituents just after the November 2010 elections that first propelled Republicans into the majority, according to the New York Times.

As part of a longstanding tradition, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi presented Boehner with the gavel and the two shared an awkward hug.

As TIME previously noted, the gavel is not the one he uses every day. Those smaller gavels come from the House Carpentry Shop, which makes them on site from maple wood.

TIME Venezuela

Venezuelan President Calls Obama’s Outreach to Cuba ‘Courageous’

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro gestures during the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR) trade bloc annual presidential 47th summit in Parana
Venezuela's President Nicolás Maduro, right, gestures during the Southern Common Market trade bloc's annual presidential 47th summit in Paraná, Argentina, on Dec. 17, 2014 Enrique Marcarian—Reuters

Cuba’s staunch Latin American ally approves of the renewal of diplomatic relations between the old foes

U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba was nothing short of “courageous,” according to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

Following dual announcements in Washington and Havana on Wednesday, the Venezuelan head of state openly lauded the new chapter in American-Cuba relations during a trade summit in Argentina’s southern city of Paraná.

“You have to recognize the gesture of Barack Obama, a gesture that is courageous and necessary,” said Maduro, according to Reuters.

Caracas has been one of the most outspoken supporters of Cuba since late President Hugo Chávez first rose to power in the country during the late 1990s.

[Reuters]

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: December 17

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

1. Independent and third party candidates could break D.C. gridlock — if they can get to Washington.

By Tom Squitieri in the Hill

2. A new software project has surgeons keeping score as a way to improve performance and save lives.

By James Somers in Medium

3. The New American Workforce: In Miami, local business are helping legal immigrants take the final steps to citizenship.

By Wendy Kallergis in Miami Herald

4. Policies exist to avoid the worst results of head injuries in sports. We must follow them to save athletes’ lives.

By Christine Baugh in the Chronicle of Higher Education

5. Sal Khan: Use portfolios instead of transcripts to reflect student achievement.

By Gregory Ferenstein at VentureBeat

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.

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