Raul Castro is poised to step down as the head of the Communist Party of Cuba at its congress this week, ending six decades of Castro rule over the island.
President Miguel Diaz-Canel, Castro’s protege, is set to take over as the next party secretary-general – the most powerful position in the country.
Though the change in leadership will not necessarily lead to drastic shifts in policy in Cuba, it’s still a historic moment for the country. Castro, 89, took over after his brother, Fidel Castro, died six years ago. The Castros have been in power since the 1959 communist revolution.
Castro is also stepping down with Cuba’s economy in historically bad shape – it shrank 11% in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Some experts believe Castro’s retirement could help bring about economic reform.
“What is happening now is a new generation is consolidating control,” Arturo López-Levy, a professor at Holy Names University in California, told NBC News. “Now they will be forced to make important reforms, because their legitimacy doesn’t come from a revolutionary background, but from being capable of showing better performance.”
It’s also unclear whether the new leadership will lead to changes in US policy toward Cuba under President Joe Biden. Since the 1960s, the US has imposed a trade embargo on Cuba and many Republicans in Congress vehemently oppose any restoration of ties with the Cuban government.
When Biden was vice president, then-President Barack Obama moved toward normalizing relations with Cuba, restoring diplomatic ties, easing restrictions on remittances and travel, and expanding commercial ties. Obama made a historic trip to Cuba in 2016, delivering a speech in which he called on both countries to continue the normalization process. Obama supported lifting the decades-old embargo and urged Congress to do so, declaring during his speech in Havana that it’s “an outdated burden on the Cuban people.”
But former President Donald Trump moved to roll-back Obama’s Cuba thaw, reimposing harsh restrictions on travel and commerce while slapping severe sanctions on Cuba.
Narrator: Yvette and Yvonne are used to standing out.
In 2014, the twin sisters started their own brand of cigars, called Tres Lindas Cubanas. Since then, they’re often the only Afro-Cuban women in a room full of men.
Yvonne Rodriguez: Imagine walking into a door where you wanna sell your cigars, and they don’t even think that you smoke cigars, you know? We don’t start at zero. We start at negative five.
Yvette Rodriguez: We still get 20 questions, like an interrogation, to find out if we know anything about cigars, if this is really our brand. Questions I don’t hear anybody asking anyone else.
Narrator: The doubtful stares didn’t stop them from putting their identity at the forefront of their business.
Their three cigar blends pay homage to Cuban women: La Clarita, la Mulata, andla Negrita. All Spanish words used to describe skin tones of women.
Yvonne: A lot of people ask us, ‘How do you guys do it? You’re a woman, you’re black, and you’re Latina, and I think that those are positives.
Yvette: No, we don’t try to blend in in the least.
Narrator: They sell their blends on their website, shipping across the country to all 50 states, and in local shops. But it all started with an investment of $500.
Yvonne: We were immediately turning a profit because we invested very little.
Yvette: It’s also a testimony to the black consumer because I would say more than 80 percent of our consumers are African-American. Buying black, that has helped us out tremendously.
Narrator: Even their packaging stands out. Instead of the usual glossy, short and fancy look, their box stands tall in plain wood.
Yvonne: That had a lot to do with the money that we had to invest, but we noticed that it really helped that we are not too flashy, so we prefer to be a surprise, and we sell more to the man and the woman that smokes every day.
Narrator: The seeds come from Cuba, but the tobacco grows in Nicaragua, where the cigars are also rolled, and then later, shipped to Miami. The sisters can’t import leaves or seeds directly from Cuba because of the embargo.
Yvonne: Currently we can’t get anything out of Cuba. We definitely are ready for when the doors open for us to create blends with the Cuban leaf. That would be great, combining them also with the Nicaraguan leaf.
Narrator: As first-generation Americans, it’s important for them to stay connected to their roots. So they lead trips to Havana, taking people through plantations and factories of Cuban cigars.
And tourists are often surprised when they see many of the workers rolling cigars are Afro-Cuban women.
Yvette: The most famous cigars in the world are being rolled by black women. It’s really a testimony to the history of tobacco and cigars.
We’re part of history. It’s like, I am Cuba, and I am cigars, you know what I mean?
We could have put models as the face of the brand, super sexy girls or super hot guy, but no. We’re gonna be the face of it. Every brand has their look. And this is our look.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in April 2019.
The mystery ailment that has afflicted US embassy staff and CIA officers off and on over the last four years in Cuba, China, Russia and other countries appears to have been caused by high-power microwaves, according to a report released by the National Academies.
A committee of 19 experts in medicine and other fields concluded that directed, pulsed radiofrequency energy is the “most plausible mechanism” to explain the illness, dubbed Havana syndrome.
The report doesn’t clear up who targeted the embassies or why they were targeted. But the technology behind the suspected weapons is well understood and dates back to the Cold War arms race between the US and the Soviet Union. High-power microwave weapons are generally designed to disable electronic equipment. But as the Havana syndrome reports show, these pulses of energy can harm people, as well.
As an electrical and computer engineer who designs and builds sources of high-power microwaves, I have spent decades studying the physics of these sources, including work with the US Department of Defense.
Directed energy microwave weapons convert energy from a power source – a wall plug in a lab or the engine on a military vehicle – into radiated electromagnetic energy and focus it on a target. The directed high-power microwaves damage equipment, particularly electronics, without killing nearby people.
These types of directed energy microwave devices came on the scene in the late 1960s in the US and the Soviet Union.
They were enabled by the development of pulsed power in the 1960s. Pulsed power generates short electrical pulses that have very high electrical power, meaning both high voltage – up to a few megavolts – and large electrical currents – tens of kiloamps. That’s more voltage than the highest-voltage long-distance power transmission lines, and about the amount of current in a lightning bolt.
Plasma physicists at the time realized that if you could generate, for example, a 1-megavolt electron beam with 10-kiloamp current, the result would be a beam power of 10 billion watts, or gigawatts. Converting 10% of that beam power into microwaves using standard microwave tube technology that dates back to the 1940s generates 1 gigawatt of microwaves. For comparison, the output power of today’s typical microwave ovens is around a thousand watts – a million times smaller.
The development of this technology led to a subset of the US-Soviet arms race – a microwave power derby. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, I and other American scientists gained access to Russian pulsed power accelerators, like the SINUS-6 that is still working in my lab. I had a fruitful decade of collaboration with my Russian colleagues, which swiftly ended following Vladimir Putin’s rise to power.
Today, research in high-power microwaves continues in the US and Russia but has exploded in China. I have visited labs in Russia since 1991 and labs in China since 2006, and the investment being made by China dwarfs activity in the US and Russia. Dozens of countries now have active high-power microwave research programs.
Lots of power, little heat
Although these high-power microwave sources generate very high power levels, they tend to generate repeated short pulses. For example, the SINUS-6 in my lab produces an output pulse on the order of 10 nanoseconds, or billionths of a second.
So even when generating 1 gigawatt of output power, a 10-nanosecond pulse has an energy content of only 10 joules. To put this in perspective, the average microwave oven in one second generates 1 kilojoule, or thousand joules of energy. It typically takes about four minutes to boil a cup of water, which corresponds to 240 kilojoules of energy.
This is why microwaves generated by these high-power microwave weapons don’t generate noticeable amounts of heat, let alone cause people to explode like baked potatoes in microwave ovens.
High power is important in these weapons because generating very high instantaneous power yields very high instantaneous electric fields, which scale as the square root of the power. It is these high electric fields that can disrupt electronics, which is why the Department of Defense is interested in these devices.
The National Academies report links high-power microwaves to impacts on people through the Frey effect. The human head acts as a receiving antenna for microwaves in the low gigahertz frequency range.
Pulses of microwaves in these frequencies can cause people to hear sounds, which is one of the symptoms reported by the affected US personnel. Other symptoms Havana syndrome sufferers have reported include headaches, nausea, hearing loss, lightheadedness and cognitive issues.
The report notes that electronic devices were not disrupted during the attacks, suggesting that the power levels needed for the Frey effect are lower than would be required for an attack on electronics. This would be consistent with a high-power microwave weapon located at some distance from the targets.
Power decreases dramatically with distance through the inverse square law, which means one of these devices could produce a power level at the target that would be too low to affect electronics but that could induce the Frey effect.
The Russians and the Chinese certainly possess the capabilities of fielding high-power microwave sources like the ones that appear to have been used in Cuba and China. The truth of what actually happened to US personnel in Cuba and China – and why – might remain a mystery, but the technology most likely involved comes from textbook physics, and the military powers of the world continue to develop and deploy it.
Edl Schamiloglu, Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Associate Dean for Research and Innovation, School of Engineering, University of New Mexico, University of New Mexico