They’re making up. After decades of frosty relations, Havana and Washington are set to normalize banking, trade and diplomatic relations — with a U.S. embassy opening in Cuba soon. President Obama said America’s blockade of the island nation had “failed to advance our interests.” Outraged Republicans, including Sen. Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, lashed out at government “appeasement.” Still, both nations say they are releasing spies, too, in addition to Cuba’s release of American Alan Gross. Break out the Cuban cigars, Americans, because they’ll soon be legal.
The Presidential Daily Brief
North Korea just stole Sony’s Christmas. After movie chains representing nearly half of the 40,000 screens in North America said they wouldn’t show the Seth Rogen comedy about an attempted assassination of Kim Jong-un, the studio officially called off its Dec. 25 release. The decisions came after threats referencing 9/11 were made against moviegoers by the so-called “Guardians of Peace.” Intelligence officials now say the group worked in conjunction with the North Korean government to carry out a major cyberattack against the studio.
Funerals are under way for the 132 children and nine teachers killed by the Pakistani Taliban in its deadliest attack to date. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has already lifted the ban on the death penalty in terrorism cases and has organized a multi-party conference in Peshawar to discuss the appropriate state response. Meanwhile, the Pakistani military has reacted with massive airstrikes on militant strongholds. While statements of sympathy and support flood in from around the world, even the Afghan Taliban has condemned the school attack.
The Russians are panicking. Despite desperate measures by the central bank, the ruble is in a free fall, losing up to 20 percent against the dollar on Tuesday. Russians rushed to buy big-ticket items like appliances and electronics, and made a run on ATMs to exchange rubles for anything valuable. Volvo and Apple halted sales, unsure of prices. “We are seeing an economic crisis,” one professor said. Besieged by Western sanctions and plummeting oil prices, the country sees only recession ahead.
Alan Gross is finally free. The U.S. government subcontractor wanted to improve Web access for Cuban Jews, and gave out laptops and phones while traveling on a tourist visa. That led to a 15-year sentence for espionage. In prison, he lost 100 pounds, his wife says, as well as most of the sight in one eye. He was released on “humanitarian grounds” and flew home this morning. Gross’ imprisonment became a sticking point in U.S.-Cuban relations, and his release may indicate an island thaw.
In an outspoken interview, the president and the first lady share their own run-ins with prejudice and stereotype. Like the tuxedoed Barack Obama being mistaken for a waiter. Or a customer asking his wife, on a Target run with Secret Service agents, for help. Obama likens NBA star LeBron James’ protest against police brutality with an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt to conscious raising akin to Muhammad Ali and Arthur Ashe. When the White House broaches a systemic problem, does this mean change will come?
We called it. Jeb Bush has broadcast his ambition to become the third commander in chief in his immediate family. While the former Florida governor is certainly favored by the Republican establishment, nobody was expecting him to throw his hat in this early. Bush has some powerful factors on his side, particularly his credibility on immigration reform, which will be a core issue in the Republican primary. Some say Americans are tired of White House dynasties, but the 2016 ballot might not offer an alternative.
The end of a very long era may loom. The current Dalai Lama, the 14th and longest-tenured, says he’s not sure if anyone will follow him. “These man-made institutions will cease,” he says, and better that than someone “stupid” assuming the role. His comments to a British broadcaster came as he told a French broadcaster that he thinks Chinese hardliners keep President Xi from offering autonomy to Tibet. The Chinese officially say no, but perhaps there’s another spirit at play.
Gov. Cuomo said he would stop hydraulic fracturing. (NYT)
Armed insurgents storm Afghan bank. (CNN)
Mars Rover finds possible signs of life. (NYT)
Hillary Clinton speaks out against CIA torture. (ABC)
Senate closes with mass confirmation of nominees. (WP)
American Apparel fires founder. (Buzzfeed)
The Black Lives Matter movement is disrupting assumptions about the religious right. Protests and “die-ins” have sprung up on Christian campuses across America, and despite a general political divide on the issue, many conservative evangelical students have joined the outcry. At Taylor University, where smoking, drinking, and non-school-sponsored dancing are banned, a rowdy basketball crowd held a mid-game moment’s silence. The schools don’t want to be seen as aligned with liberal politics, though — they’re answering the Christian call to pursue social justice.
Would you like pizza, cake — or a makeshift petrol bomb? Google’s detailed end-of-year statistics show that the most common recipe search in Ukraine was for molotov cocktails. In case you’ve never been in a revolution, those are incendiary devices made from glass bottles containing flammable liquid. As political crises piled up at their doors, many Ukrainians also searched for online explanations of separatism, fascism and lustration. Worldwide, the most common search terms included Robin Williams, Ebola, ISIS and, obviously, Flappy Bird.
“Oh God, it’s mom.” Politically divided brothers Brad and Dallas Woodhouse, whose televised squabbles over Obamacare can turn pretty nasty, were shocked when host Steven Scully announced an unexpected caller from North Carolina. “You’re right, I’m from down south — and I’m your MOTHER,” said Joyce Woodhouse, before admonishing her pundit sons to stop quarreling in time for Christmas. It was a proud bipartisan moment of mortification.
Rare dolphins and highly endangered tigers are under extreme threat after an oil spill at Bangladesh’s Sundarbans mangrove forest. The U.N.-protected site is a haven to an astonishing number of rare species, but 52,000 gallons of fuel have leaked into its rivers since a tanker was wrecked last week in a nearby dolphin sanctuary. Forest officials admit they don’t know where to turn, and the Bangladeshi government has been criticized for its slow response time.
Soccer’s governing body has apparently turned on its own lawyer in an attempt to escape allegations of corruption. Michael Garcia, an American lawyer, was appointed to investigate the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups in Russia and Qatar. When FIFA released its own summary of his inquiry, their report cleared everyone involved of all wrongdoing. Garcia objected, saying they misrepresented his findings, but FIFA has dismissed his complaint. With its credibility in tatters, the group will meet this week to discuss its code of ethics.