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 Pakistan

Pakistani Military Strikes Back at Taliban Following Peshawar Massacre

An army soldier stands guard inside the Army Public School, which was attacked by Taliban gunmen, in Peshawar
An army soldier stands guard inside the Army Public School, which was attacked by Taliban gunmen earlier this week, in Peshawar, Pakistan, on Dec. 17, 2014 Zohra Bensemra—Reuters

Spokesperson says more than a dozen operations have been carried out since Tuesday

The Pakistani military claims to have struck back hard against Taliban militants days after the group launched one the deadliest single-day attacks in their seven-year insurgency against the state.

In the two days since Taliban forces indiscriminately murdered more than 140 people, including 132 children, at a school in Peshawar, Pakistani security forces have launched 20 air strikes, killing an estimated 57 terrorists in the process, according to a tweet from military spokesperson Major General Asim Bajwa.

The armed forces’ representative added that operations are ongoing. Pakistan is currently in its second day of official mourning for the massacre, which sent shock waves through the country and brought renewed scrutiny to the military’s past dealings with militants within the country’s borders.

TIME Qatar

Two-Speed Labor System in Qatar for 2022 World Cup

Qatar Soccer Labor Shame
In this photo taken on Nov. 9, 2014, construction work is under way at the Khalifa Stadium in Doha, Qatar. Rob Harris—AP

It's not just the construction workers who are experiencing terrible working conditions

(DOHA, QATAR) — Men crammed together, dozens to a room, on bunk beds so close they can reach over and shake hands.

Qatar, on paper at least, has rules that forbid such uncomfortable conditions for its massive workforce of migrant laborers. Yet this is how the government-owned transport company, which the Gulf nation will use to ferry visitors around the 2022 World Cup, has housed some of its workers.

As Qatar employs legions of migrants to build stadiums and other works for the football showcase, widespread labor abuses documented by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other critics have blackened its name and $160 billion preparations.

Hundreds of worker deaths, many apparently from cardiac arrests, have also fueled concerns that laborers are being overworked in desert conditions and shoddily treated. Reporting this April on a fact-finding mission, the U.N’s special adviser on migrants’ rights, Francois Crepeau, cited “anecdotal evidence that too many of these mostly young men return home in a coffin.”

Problems, The Associated Press found, aren’t limited to the construction sector.

Accommodation for drivers of buses and of Qatar’s distinctive turquoise taxis is a walled-off compound in the bleak industrial zone of Doha, the capital. Dust-covered cadavers of burned-out buses and broken taxis abandoned on surrounding wasteland make the luxury malls and gleaming towers of central Doha seem far away.

The compound walls and flag over the main gate bear the name Mowasalat. The transporter plans to have 7,000 taxis on the roads by the World Cup.

In one dormitory block, in what drivers said was meant to be a recreation room for table tennis and other pastimes, the AP saw two dozen bunk beds in three tight lines.

The arrangements were apparently meant to be only temporary, but drivers said they had lived like this for months. Without lockers, they hung clothes and towels from bed frames. In a corner, one man gave another a shave. Drivers said around 30 of them were housed there and that other blocks in the compound which the AP didn’t visit had similarly crowded rooms.

Yet a 2005 ministerial decree said workers should not be housed more than four to a room or be made to sleep in bunks.

In its company brochure, Mowasalat speaks of “excellent housing facilities” for employees. But even a standard dormitory room the AP saw slept six, also on bunks. Drivers said the close living is physically and morally wearing, with rest difficult and quarrels easy.

Mowasalat did not reply to emailed questions. But it did appear to thin out numbers in the supposed “recreation” rooms after the AP showed a photo of the cramped conditions to Mowasalat executives. Drivers subsequently reached by phone said some of them were moved to other rooms. One said he was transferred from a room with 43 drivers, where he spent two months, to another with 16, still on bunks.

“Thanks for highlighting our plight to some Mowasalat management,” another driver wrote by email to the AP. “Since you raised the mat(t)er they have slightly decongested the common room. Still it is no decent way for workers to live but it’s a step forward.”

Qatar’s World Cup organizers are trying to limit the reputational damage of labor abuses by treating their own workers better than the norm.

Officials for the Supreme Committee putting together the World Cup gave the AP a tour of housing for stadium builders from Southeast Asia. They sleep three to a room, some with en-suite bathrooms, and on their own beds, not bunks, with curtains for additional privacy. They even have a pool. In the free canteen, workers heaped their plates with rice, flatbreads and curries.

In his consulting room with the sign “WE ARE HERE FOR YOU” on one wall, the camp’s jovial doctor said the workers’ health problems are generally no more serious than allergic coughs and sniffles from working in dust and sand, skin itches from sweating, and the aches, pains, sprains and scrapes of manual labor.

World Cup workers are also covered by special regulations which lay out their “right to be treated in a manner that ensures at all times their wellbeing, health, safety and security” and detail how contractors must ethically recruit, promptly pay, and decently house them.

The Supreme Committee’s power to award tournament-related contracts also gives it leverage to force improvements.

“I have had to make the phone call several times to contractors to say ‘Sorry mate, we’ve been to your camp. We don’t think you’re treating your people the way we want anyone on our sites to be treated, so you’re out of the running, I can’t work with you,'” said Tamim el-Abed, project manager of Lusail Stadium earmarked for the 2022 opening game and final.

“They scrabble around trying to pull together a superficial Band-Aid response. We see through that,” he said. “Sometimes they do a genuine turn-around and they improve their facilities.”

“It’s about culture change,” he said.

However, to critics, singling out World Cup workers for better treatment smacks of double standards. They want deeper, across-the-board reforms for all.

Even at the stadium builders’ facility, not all are treated equally. A Kenyan security guard there complained to the AP that six sleep in his small room, on bunks. Supreme Committee officials said the man isn’t directly employed by them but by a subcontractor.

“Putting in place a two-tier labor system, which is what they are talking about, is not much of a legacy,” said Nicholas McGeehan, a Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch.

“I don’t think it’s something that we should accept,” McGeehan said. “It’s OK to protect World Cup workers but it’s not OK to protect, what, transport workers? Taxi drivers? Cleaners? Do they not deserve the same?”

TIME Palestine

Palestinians Set Deadline for Israeli Occupation

Switzerland Palestinians Geneva Convention
Swiss Ambassador and chairman Paul Fivat speaks to the media during a press conference following the Conference of High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention, in Geneva, Switzerland, Dec. 17, 2014. Salvatore Di Nolfi—‚AP

The resolution also welcomes the idea of holding an international conference to launch negotiations on reaching a peace agreement

(UNITED NATIONS) — Israel suffered back-to-back diplomatic setbacks in Europe on Wednesday, while the Palestinians at the United Nations set a deadline for an Israeli withdrawal from lands captured nearly 50 years ago by the end of 2017.

In Geneva, the international community delivered a stinging rebuke to Israel’s settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, saying the practice violates Israel’s responsibilities as an occupying power.

The declaration adopted by the conference of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which governs the rules of war and military occupation, emphasized a prohibition on colonizing occupied land and insisted that international humanitarian law be obeyed in areas affected by the conflict between Israel and Palestinians. It called for “all serious violations” to be investigated and those responsible for breaches to be brought to justice.

“This is a signal and we can hope that words count,” said Swiss ambassador Paul Fivat, who chaired the one-day meeting. The U.S. and Israel did not take part.

Israel’s U.N. Mission blasted the gathering, saying: “It confers legitimacy on terrorist organizations and dictatorial regimes wherever they are, while condemning a democratic country fighting terrorism in accordance with international law.”

In Luxembourg, meanwhile, a European Union court ordered the Palestinian group Hamas removed from the EU terrorist list for procedural reasons but said the 28-nation bloc can maintain asset freezes against Hamas members for now.

The Islamic militant group, which calls for the destruction of Israel, hailed the decision, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed outrage.

“It seems that too many in Europe, on whose soil 6 million Jews were slaughtered, have learned nothing,” Netanyahu said, adding that Israel would continue to defend itself “against the forces of terror and tyranny and hypocrisy.”

The EU court ruled that the terrorist listing of Hamas was based on press and Internet reports and not on “acts examined and confirmed in decisions of competent authorities.”

The EU, which has two months to appeal, was considering its next step.

In New York, an Arab-backed draft resolution on ending Israel’s occupation of lands captured in 1967 was submitted Wednesday evening to the U.N. Security Council for a possible vote, Palestinian Ambassador Riyad Mansour said.

However, Mansour said the Arab-backed resolution does not close the door on further negotiations on the issue, including with the United States, “if they are ready and willing.” The U.S., as a permanent council member, often has vetoed measures targeting Israel in the past.

And Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki earlier said the actual vote might be put off, suggesting a compromise is in the works to avoid a clash in the council.

The draft, sponsored by Jordan on behalf of the Palestinians, sets the end of 2017 as a deadline for an Israeli withdrawal from war-won lands the Palestinians are seeking for a state. The deadline has been pushed back from that of November 2016 in the earlier draft.

Israel fiercely opposes any suggestions that the Security Council can set a framework for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which broke down again in the spring after the two sides couldn’t agree on the ground rules.

The resolution also welcomes the idea of holding an international conference to launch negotiations on reaching a peace agreement.

The United States was scrambling Wednesday to avert a showdown at the Security Council. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was talking to European and Arab foreign ministers about a potential meeting this weekend in the Mideast, possibly with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the Obama administration is studying the EU’s court decision but the U.S. continues to consider Hamas as a terrorist organization.

The U.S. hasn’t said how it would respond to the Jordanian resolution, but Kerry took a hard line in meetings this week in Europe against any effort that could interfere with Israel’s elections in mid-March.

“We want to find the most constructive way of doing something that therefore will not have unintended consequences, but also can stem the violence,” Kerry told reporters in London on Tuesday. He said the situation marks “a particularly sensitive moment” given rising tensions between Israel and Palestinians.

Israel did one win diplomatic engagement in Europe on Wednesday, this one at the European Parliament. The lawmakers meeting in Strasbourg, France, stopped short of pushing for an outright recognition of a Palestinian state, urging renewed peace talks instead.

Legislators voted 498-88 in favor of a compromise resolution supporting “in principle recognition of Palestinian statehood” — but as part of a two-state solution with Israel. The resolution supports two states on the basis of 1967 borders, with Jerusalem as the capital of both.

__

Dahlburg reported from Brussels. Associated Press writers John Heilprin reported from Geneva, Mohammed Daraghmen in Ramallah, West Bank; Peter Enav in Jerusalem; Fares Akram in Gaza City, Gaza Strip; Angela Charlton in Paris; Cara Anna at the United Nations and Lara Jakes in Washington contributed to this report.

TIME climate change

NOAA Arctic Report Card Shows a Rapid Rise in Arctic Air Temperatures

Polar Bear
Hoberman Collection/UIG/Getty Images

NOAA has released its annual Arctic Report Card. It’s not fabulous

Arctic air temperatures are still increasing at twice the rate of global air temperatures, a NOAA-led report has found.

This year’s Arctic Report Card, a collaborative report by 63 authors from 13 countries, reports a disappointing continuation of Arctic warming: Alaska is seeing temperature anomalies more than 18 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the January average; temperatures are rising in the seas of the Arctic Ocean; and snow cover across the Arctic region is below average.

The report also includes an assessment of climate change’s impact on polar bears, finding a population decline in Hudson Bay, Canada, where the ice season is turning shorter. Still, polar bear numbers have stabilized elsewhere, including in the southern Beaufort Sea.

TIME Security

Everything We Know About Sony, The Interview and North Korea

What we know, what we don't know, and how a movie got pulled

Sony Pictures Entertainment said late Wednesday that it’s pulling The Interview, a comedy about two journalists tasked with killing North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un. Sony’s move came a day after a cryptic message appeared online threatening attacks against theaters that played the film, and several weeks after hackers first breached Sony’s system and posted troves of private emails and other data online.

Shortly after Sony decided to scrub The Interview, a U.S. official confirmed to TIME that American intelligence officials have determined North Korea was behind the Sony hack, though no evidence has been disclosed.

Here’s everything we know for sure about the Sony hack, up until now.

What happened?

On Nov. 24, Sony employees came to work in Culver City, Calif., to find images of grinning red skulls on computer screens. The hackers identified themselves as #GOP, or the Guardians of Peace. They made off with a vast amount of data (reports suggest up to 100 terabytes), wiped company hard drives and began dumping sensitive documents on the Internet.

Among the sensitive information the hackers divulged: salary and personnel records for tens of thousands of employees as well as Hollywood stars; embarrassing email traffic between executives and movie moguls; and several of the studio’s unreleased feature films. More is likely to come, as Sony Pictures Co-Chair Amy Pascal said the hackers got away with every employees’ emails “from the last 10 years.”

MORE: The 7 most outrageous things we learned from the Sony hack

And the attack has already affected other companies: Secret acquisitions by photo-sharing app Snapchat, for instance, have been made public thanks to leaked emails from Sony Pictures CEO Michael Lynton, who sits on Snapchat’s board.

Who did it?

That’s the million-dollar question. For a few reasons, suspicion has zeroed in on the North Korean government or a band of allied hacktivists. The hermit kingdom is apoplectic over The Interview, in which Seth Rogen and James Franco play journalists who land a face-to-face with Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, only to be asked by the CIA to assassinate the reclusive leader. The comedy features graphic footage of the dictator’s death, which didn’t go over well in a country built on a hereditary personality cult.

From a forensic perspective, the hack had hallmarks of North Korean influence. The attackers breached Sony’s network with malware that had been compiled on a Korean-language computer. And the effort bore similarities to attacks by a hacking group with suspected ties to North Korea that has carried out attacks on South Korean targets, including a breach of South Korean banks in 2013. That group, which is alternately known in the cybersecurity community as DarkSeoul (after its frequent target) or Silent Chollima (after a mythical winged horse), often uses spear-phishing—a cyber-attack that targets a specific vulnerable user or department on a larger network.

MORE: U.S. sees North Korea as culprit in Sony attack

That does not necessarily mean the North Korean government, or even the same hacker collective, is responsible. In the world of cyberwarfare, hackers will often dissect and imitate successful techniques.

Even the clues that point toward Pyongyang could be diversions to deflect investigators. For example, the perpetrators could’ve manipulated the code or set the computer language to throw suspicion on a convenient culprit. Pyongyang has denied involvement.

Why did Sony scrub The Interview?

People who may or may not have been tied to the hackers posted a vague message Tuesday threatening 9/11-style attacks against theaters that chose to play the film. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said there wasn’t any evidence of a credible threat against American movie theaters, but several major chains, including AMC and Regal, decided to play it safe—all told, chains that control about half of the country’s movie screens decided against playing The Interview. Sony then followed suit, pulling the movie entirely.

Were theaters really in danger?

It’s tough to say for sure. North Korea has made lots of bloviating threats toward the U.S. before, so anything that comes out of Pyongyang should be taken with a grain of salt. But again, no concrete proof has been made public yet that these attacks or the threat came from North Korea—or even that they came from the same person or group.

Will we ever get to see The Interview?

Probably. The movie cost about $44 million to make, according to documents leaked by the hackers. The ad campaign so far has cost tens of millions on top of that, although Sony has pulled the plug on further TV spots. A total loss on that investment would be a tough pill for Sony to swallow.

MORE: You can’t see The Interview, but TIME’s movie critic did

What will most likely happen is some limited release in the future when everything calms down, perhaps bypassing theaters and going right to Blu-Ray/DVD and on-demand services. There’s also a chance Sony could release the film online. That would eliminate pretty much any safety risk to viewers, but could further enrage whoever hacked Sony—assuming they actually care about The Interview and it’s not just a red herring. It would also let Sony capitalize on all the sudden interest in the film generated by the hack and threats. Don’t expect to see it soon: Sony said late Wednesday it’s not planning any kind of release. But it could, of course, be leaked online.

In an interview with ABC News on Wednesday, President Barack Obama called the hack against Sony “very serious,” but suggested authorities have yet to find any credibility in the threat of attacks against theaters.

“For now, my recommendation would be that people go to the movies,” Obama said.

How did the hackers do it?

We don’t know exactly. Cyber-security experts say the initial breach could have occurred through a simple phishing or spearfishing attempt, in which the hackers find a soft spot in the company’s network defenses. That can be a coding error or an employee who clicks on an infected link. These breaches occur all the time. FireEye, the parent company of the cybersecurity firm Sony hired to probe the hack, studied the network security of more than 1,200 banks, government agencies and manufacturers over a six-month period ending in 2014, and found that 97% had their last line of defense breached at some point by hackers.

“Breaches are inevitable,” says Dmitri Alperovitch, co-founder of the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike. “But that just means they’ve gotten in the door. It doesn’t mean they’ll be able to walk out with the crown jewels or set fire to the building.”

Once inside, hackers will try to gain elevated security privileges to spread across the network. What made the Sony hack different was the fact that it wasn’t detected until large quantities of data had been swiped. And what stood out, several analysts say, was not the sophistication of the breach but the havoc the culprits sought to wreak. “The attack was very targeted, very well thought out,” says Mike Fey of the network-security firm Blue Coat Systems, who believes the hackers “planned and orchestrated” the attack for months.

What are investigators doing to find out who’s responsible?

Sony has brought in experts at Mandiant, a top security firm, to lead the probe of the hack. Their investigation, outside security experts say, will be similar in some ways to the forensic analysis that follow a murder: studying data logs, reviewing network communications, poring over code, matching clues to potential motives. It may involve probing bulletin boards on the Dark Web, where hackers sometimes go to seek advice on technical troubles.

“There’s a lot of detective work you can do,” says former Department of Justice cybercrime prosecutor Mark Rasch. “Are they native English speakers? What programming language do they use? The code will have styles, signatures and tells.”

And investigators are tracking the IP addresses from which the attack was launched, which in the case of the Sony hack included infected computers in locations ranging from Thailand to Italy.

What happens if it was North Korea?

It’s tough to say. It’s unprecedented for a state actor to conduct a cyberattack of this scale against a U.S. corporation. If that turns out to be the case, however the U.S. decides to respond will set the tone for a whole new kind of cyberwar.

Could the Sony hack happen to other companies?

It’s increasingly likely. Sony is unusual in large part because the attackers appear to have been driven by a desire to cause destruction, rather than financial motives. And the strange geopolitical overtones of the hack add a dollop of intrigue. “It’s a milestone because it’s such a large-scale destructive attack that is rooted in this bizarre political messaging,” says security researcher Kurt Baumgartner of Kaspersky Lab.

But cyber-warfare is a growing threat for which most companies are ill-prepared. Joseph Demarest, assistant director in the FBI’s cyber division, testified to a Senate panel earlier this month that the malware used in the Sony hack “probably [would have] gotten past 90% of the net defenses that are out there today in private industry.” Banks and government agencies tend to have better security, but in recent months major retailers like Target and Home Depot have been hit. When targeted by competent and persistent hackers, corporate defenses will often be outmatched. “This is a great wakeup call,” says Kevin Haley, a director at Symantec Security Response. “We need to get better at securing our organizations.”

-Additional reporting by Sam Frizell

Read next: You Can’t See ‘The Interview,’ but I Did

TIME intelligence

U.S. Sees North Korea as Culprit in Sony Hack

Fallout prompted studio to pull The Interview

American officials have determined the government of North Korea is connected to the hack that left Sony Entertainment Pictures reeling and eventually prompted it to pull a movie critical of the country’s leader, a U.S. official confirmed Wednesday.

Much remains unclear about the nature of North Korea’s involvement. The country, while lauding the hack against Sony, has denied being behind it. There were conflicting reports Wednesday evening, and officials are expected to unveil their findings Thursday. But the U.S. official confirmed to TIME that intelligence officials have indeed determined North Korea was behind the hack, one of the worst cyberattacks ever against an American company.

The New York Times, citing senior Obama Administration officials, reported that intelligence officials have determined North Korea was “centrally involved.” NBC News, also citing unnamed U.S. officials, reported that the Americans believe the hacking came from outside North Korea itself, but that the hackers were acting on orders from Pyongyang.

MORE: The 7 most outrageous things we learned from the Sony hack

The hack exposed reams of company data, including employees’ emails and salaries. A group calling itself the Guardians of Peace claimed credit. And analysts have speculated North Korea was behind an attack that came before the scheduled release of The Interview, a Sony movie that depicts American journalists enlisted by the CIA to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. (North Korean officials have criticized the movie.) Threats of 9/11-style attacks against theaters that show the movie led many theaters to say this week that they wouldn’t screen it, which prompted Sony to cancel the scheduled Christmas Day release altogether.

“We are deeply saddened by this brazen effort to suppress the distribution of a movie, and in the process do damage to our company, our employees and the American public,” Sony said in a statement. “We stand by our filmmakers and their right to free expression and are extremely disappointed by this outcome.”

In an interview with ABC News on Wednesday, President Barack Obama called the hack against Sony “very serious,” but suggested authorities have yet to find any credibility in the threat of attacks against theaters.

“For now, my recommendation would be that people go to the movies,” Obama said.

TIME global health

This Is Now the Average Life Expectancy Worldwide

Southern sub-Saharan Africa was the only region worldwide to have a decline in life expectancy

Life expectancy across the globe has increased by more than six years since 1990 to 71.5 years, according to a new study.

“The progress we are seeing against a variety of illnesses and injuries is good, even remarkable, but we can and must do even better,” said lead study author Christopher Murray, a University of Washington professor, in a press release.

The study, published Wednesday in the Lancet journal, showed declines in the number of deaths from cancer and cardiovascular disease in high-income countries as well as in deaths from diarrhea and neonatal complications elsewhere. Both of these trends contributed to the overall decline. Importantly, medical funding for fighting infectious diseases has grown since 1990 and helped drive the improvement, according to Murray.

Still, despite the improvement, the number of deaths from a number of ailments increased. Perhaps most dramatically, deaths from HIV/AIDS joined the list of the top 10 causes of premature death. The number of annual deaths from the ailment rose from 2.07 million in 1990 to 2.63 million in 2013, the equivalent of a 344% increase in years of lost life. The increase in deaths from HIV/AIDS made southern sub-Saharan Africa the only region worldwide to experience a decline in life expectancy.

Other ailments that caused an increased loss of life include liver cancer caused by hepatitis C, which soared 125% since 1990, and deaths from disorders related to drug use, which increased by 63%.

TIME Colombia

Colombian Rebels Announce Unilateral Cease-Fire

COLOMBIA-FARC-ATTACK
A Colombian soldier stands guard in the town of Tame, Columbia on Aug. 25, 3013. Daniel Martinez—AFP/Getty Images

(HAVANA) — Colombian rebels at peace talks with government representatives in Cuba have announced an indefinite, unilateral cease-fire as long as military units don’t attack them.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia made the announcement in a communique published on its Twitter account Wednesday.

Representatives of the rebel group known as the FARC and the government since 2012 have held a series of talks in Havana aimed at ending the conflict of more the five decades.

TIME Cuba

Fidel Loses the Race to the Grave

Castro Leads Massive Anti-U.S. Demo
Fidel Castro delivering a speech in Havana on May 14, 2004 Jorge Rey—Getty Images

It's fitting that the thaw was brokered by a president who wasn't alive when Castro came to power

The world now has the answer to a question as old as the New World Order: Which would die first? Fidel Castro? Or the chokehold his angry critics maintained on U.S. foreign policy since El Comandante came to power in Cuba 55 years ago? It was entirely fitting that the answer was delivered by an American president whose own age is 53. As he noted in his historic address from the White House on Wednesday, Barak Obama was born two years after Castro’s Communist guerrillas swept into Havana. Like the children and grandchildren of the Cubans who fled to Miami after the Communists arrived, the events Obama actually lived through were the ones that steadily reduced the island from a marquee venue of the Cold War — the thrust stage from which, in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, armageddon was nearly launched — to whatever the place qualifies as today: basically a scenic relic of Marxism, with beaches and cigars.

Other stout lobbies remain as present as their animating issue: The NRA likely will be around as long as gun owners are, and the Israel lobby as long as the state. But the U.S. government’s determined, and solitary isolation of Cuba was, as Obama alluded, a victim of generational change. The collapse of the Soviet Union, so thrillingly dramatic, was followed by the more gradual senescence of those who had invested most in opposing its most famous client state.

Time waits for no man, not even Fidel. El Commandante, now 88, is still around, and as recently as 2010 was still capable of stirring the pot. He opened the Havana Aquarium and commanded a dolphin show for a visiting U.S. journalist, Jeffrey Goldberg, whom Fidel then told, “The Cuban model doesn’t even work for us any more.” The regime that Fidel once made a model of resistance to U.S. dominance is now run by his 83-year-old kid brother. It was Raul Castro who spoke from Havana at the same moment Obama made his historic address at noon Wednesday, the two speeches pre-arranged by the leaders’ staffs to begin at the same hour, signaling both sides’ commitment to a new era of cooperation.

But the Cuban side appeared to be locked in that other era: Raul Castro was seated between dark paneling and a massive desk. The framed snapshots at his elbows were in black and white — the kind of vintage photographs that adorn the Hotel Nacional at the edge of the magnificent ruin that is Havana’s Old City. The glossies in the hotel are there for the tourists, images of the like of Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack making themselves at home in a version of Havana glamour familiar to Americans who — forbidden by the travel restrictions Obama says will be pushed away — last saw the city in The Godfather Part II, or any other movie set in Cuba before Castro took over.

The reality just outside the hotel’s doors is far more compelling, from the ardent struggles of human rights activists and artists, to the joyously sensual quality of street life in what may well be the sexiest capital city in the world. Americans who dared to visit — it wasn’t hard, routing through Canada or Cancun — returned with enthusiastic reports of a poor but intensely vibrant society. Its economy may be a shambles now, but the island’s physical features alone, including 2,300 miles of Caribbean coastline not an hour from the U.S., all but assure development, especially by American retirees. Which would be fitting as well, since they would be old enough to appreciate just how time can change things.

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