USA-Cuba Infomed Project: Response to Bolton
Many media outlets covered an address on May 6 by US Undersecretary of State John Bolton to the right-wing Heritage foundation. The highlight for the media was Bolton professing a belief that Cuba possesses offensive biological weapons capacity and that an intelligence compromise within the US defense community contributed to an underappreciation of the situtation in Cuba. His remarks are posted at the US state department website http://www.state.gov/t/us/rm/9962.htm (1.)
Bolton's charge is an extremely grave one, and the evidence for it must be considered.
Issues of biological weapons and Cuba are reviewed at considerable length in the scientific literature by Raymond Zilinskas, in a monograph published in Critical Reviews in Microbiology in 1999 (2.)
Since the Cuban government is so obviously suspicious of the US, Zilinskas also considered whether he had seen evidence in the material he reviewed that Cuba is interested in developing biological weapons.
His answer is an unambiguous "no."
In an interview with the Miami Herald, Zilinskas observes that one can never prove a negative -- the task the US would set for Cuba: "'You can never know for sure, but as far as I can see there's been no evidence they're doing anything,' said Raymond Zilinskas, a senior scientist at the Center for Non-Proliferation Studies at the California-based Monterey Institute of International Studies. [...] Castro's 12 accusations [of US biological attacks] raise the possibility that Havana scientists may be researching methods to counter biological warfare, Zilinskas added, 'although that, too, would stir up a terrible pot, and I don't believe it.'" (3)
A highly-placed emigre's experience confirms Zilinskas' analysis: "I heard no account of any effort for developing biological weapons in Cuba," said Jose de la Fuente, now at Oklahoma State University. De la Fuente oversaw some 350 scientists at the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in Havana until leaving Cuba for the US in 1999 (4.)
Bolton's claim that defense analysts have not been attending to Cuba is false. W. Seth Carus reports that the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (later subsumed into U.S. Dept of State) and the Federation of Independent States were skeptical of claims that Cuba was developing biological weapons, while Department of Defense groups traditionally accepted the claims, as does some of the "open source" literature (5.) Carus explains that the latter is so full of unreliable accusations that "reviewing these reports, it appears that there are at least 110 countries with offensive biological warfare programs."
Next, listen closely to Bolton refine his accusation against Cuba:
"Here is what we now know: The United States believes..."
In other words, the US does not have the ability to make accusations of even minimal verifiability. No specific Cuban facilities or organisms are named in Bolton's statement.
Bolton continues: "Cuba has maintained a well-developed and sophisticated biomedical industry, supported until 1990 by the Soviet Union. This industry is one of the most advanced in Latin America, and leads in the production of pharmaceuticals and vaccines that are sold worldwide."
If this were any other nation in the world, this would of course be a good thing, not a bad thing. A baby born in Washington, D.C. is twice as likely to die in infancy than one born in Cuba's capitol; nearly three times as likely if the D.C. baby has the misfortune to be African-American. (6,7) Cuba delivers far better medical care to its citizens than the US does, despite forty years of the US economic blockade.
The essence of the charge, then, is that Cuba has a healthy, successful biomedical program in spite of the blockade, and that is all we know. The rest Bolton pretends to "believe" on behalf of his fellow US citizens as their representative.
Despite their obvious weakness, the accusations against Cuba are played in the press far more heavily than those against Libya and Syria. Bolton's speech was more than 3,700 words long. 614 words address Cuba - less than one-sixth of the speech - yet it was that part of the speech which was so frighteningly reported.
The real dangers the US presents to Cuba are to its health care system and related industries. Bolton says in his speech: "States that renounce terror and abandon WMD [weapons of mass destruction] can become part of our effort. But those that do not can expect to become our targets."
The primary evidence Bolton presents with respect to biological weapons in Cuba is the Cuban health research system, an integral part of its fantastic public health system. The implication is that Cuba must dismantle that research or be a "target." Cuba is being told togut the sort of program which we know in the US attracts energetic, interested people to medical work, because its success in Cuba arouses our ire.
Why is the U.S. government so angry about a successful system?
Cuba's success is fiscal as well as intellectual: in cooperation with SmithKline Beecham, Cuba is marketing an encephalitis vaccine, the best in the world of its type. Cuban biotechnology exports were valued at $125 million a year as long ago as 1995 (8.) This economic angle is vital: Cuban biotechnology energizes not only public health but the Cuban economy in spite of our embargo.
In Bolton's view, Cuba must agree to abide by the US' decisions on which countries are and are not permitted to have pharmaceuticals industries as well as shuttering its domestic research and development. This is the thrust of his "dual use" argument: that Cuba has exported drugs, reagents and research equipment without asking for permission.
The New York Times reported last fall that the Army wanted to find out how to make anthrax the way a terrorist might, and so built a facility for culturing microbes in Nevada. They used fermenters and hardware store tubing for their reaction vessels, and could have traveled to any of the 80+ countries in the world where virulent anthrax is a native pathogen to get their stocks of anthrax spores. (Mexico alone averages 10 anthrax fatalities per year) (9,10.)
Is the US proposing to halt the sale of microbrewery supplies worldwide? Of course not.
Bolton's accusation that Cuba is developing biological weapons is politically motivated and punitive. Its basis is Cuba's successful and thus highly frustrating public health system. The accusation is refuted by researchers in the field and by the total lack of evidence provided by Bolton. If we accept the charge and permit the Bush administration to apply its remedy, we will enervate Cuban biological research and remove an economically and intellectually useful sector of the Cuban economy - which benefits everyone in the world through its advances - at gunpoint.
We must not let our government bluff us into attacking Cuba in this way.
USA-Cuba Infomed Project, May, 2002
Jane Franklin, Author of "Cuba and the United States: A Chronological
NY Transfer News
1: U.S. Department of State. May 6, 2002. "Beyond the Axis of Evil:
Additional Threats from Weapons of Mass Destruction." John R. Bolton,
Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security Available
2: Critical Reviews in Microbiology, 25(3)173227 (1999.) "Cuban
Allegations of Biological Warfare by the United States Assessing the
Evidence." Raymond A. Zilinskas. This monograph focusses primarily on
Cuban allegations of US biological warfare, and rationalizes all of
them as being reports of Cuban epidemics which are explainable by
regional patterns of disease -- while admitting that there is good
evidence that weaponized toxins were introduced into Cuba by the US.
The logic he applies in each case he chooses for formal analysis is
3: Miami Herald: June 23, 1999. "U.S. skeptical of report on Cuban
biological weapons." Juan O. Tamayo. Available online here
4: Miami Herald: May 7, 2002. "Talk of germ weapons in Cuba jolts
Congress." Tim Johnson. Available online here
5: Critical Reviews in Microbiology, 24(3):149-155 (1998.) "Biological
Warfare Threats in Perspective." W. Seth Carus.
6: Kaiser Family Foundation. Available online here
Of considerable interest is that nationwide in the US, the infant
mortality rate for African Americans is approximately twice that for
Cuban babies and approximately three times that for white US babies.
7: Cuban Ministry of Public Health (Cuba) and Central Intelligence
Agency (US.) here
8: New York Times: May 7, 2002. "Washington Accuses Cuba of
Germ-Warfare Research." Judith Miller. Available online (6.8.02) with
9: New York Times: September 4, 2001. "Next to Old Rec Hall, a
'Germ-Making Plant.'" Judith Miller. Available online (6.8.02) with
10: Associated Press: October 20, 2001. "Germ banks around the world
sell, trade or even give away anthrax." Will Weissert. Available
The Center for International Policy has a
point-by-point discussion of Bolton's remarks online CIP Refutes
Bolton's Statements on Cuba: A Gross Distortion of Reality
The Cuba Solidarity Campaign (UK) has an excellent page discussing
Cuba and allegations of terrorism here