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June 2003 Volume 16 Number 6



Looking For Terrorists In Cuba’s Health System 

by Jane Franklin

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Sneaking into a Cuban health clinic, James Bond—Agent 007—stands before a mural of Fidel Castro. Agent 007 pushes against a worn spot on the portrait. A hidden door slides open to reveal what this so-called health clinic really is—a cover for a state-of-the-art laboratory that carries out “DNA transfer.” Guess what? Cuban scientists have provided a change of identity to the movie’s main villain, a North Korean who aims to rule the world with a weapon of mass destruction. 

MGM bet millions of dollars that Die Another Day, the latest James Bond vehicle, would find an audience programmed to accept the idea that a health clinic in Cuba could be a cover for a terrorist conspiracy. They won their bet. Die Another Day was a box office smash and will earn millions more on video. The mainstream critics who complain about the positive views of Fidel Castro in two recent documentaries—Oliver Stone’s Comandante and Estela Bravo’s Fidel—seem not at all concerned about the grotesque fabrications of Die Another Day

This present campaign is a paradigm of Washington’s pattern of accusing others of doing what Washington is planning to do or has already done. Even three New York Times reporters—Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg, and William Broad—in their 2001 book, Germs: Biological Weapons and Americas Secret War, acknowledge U.S. contingency plans for bioterrorism against Cuba beginning soon after the revolution in 1959. One scenario was to start with a “biological strike against Cuba’s soldiers and civilians.” 

Speaking in 1999 about those schemes, Bill Patrick, who carried out biological research for two decades at Fort Detrick, Maryland (the main base for developing germ warfare), told an audience of military officers, “We would incapacitate the Cuban population from three days to a little over two weeks.” He explained that only about 2 percent of Cuba’s 7 million people (about 140,000) would die and then, “We could move our forces in and take over the country and that would be it.” This seems even more frightening when we remember that these plans coincided with President Kennedy’s massive use of chemical warfare in Vietnam called Operation Hades, later renamed Operation Ranch Hand, that began in 1961 and continued under Presidents Johnson and Nixon until 1971. 

Meanwhile, as the Cubans set about developing a system that could deliver free health care to those seven million people whose incapacitation was being plotted at Fort Detrick, Washington responded with a total ban on trade, including food and medicine—sanctions that have continued for more than four decades. 

Pro-embargo logic forms a vicious and bizarre circle: Washington outlaws trade with Cuba, even in medicine, forcing Cuba to develop its own advanced pharmaceutical and biotechnological industry. Washington then cites that industry as evidence of Cuba’s ability to wage biological warfare. Washington therefore labels Cuba a terrorist nation. Thus the embargo is “not only  legitimate, but essential.” 

In 1965, Cuba established the first of its centers for biomedical and scientific research and development. About half of Cuba’s doctors had fled the island at the time of the revolution. Those who remained were teaching and learning the medical techniques of a new era. In a 1976 study called “Changes in Cuban Health Care: An Argument Against Technological Pessimism,” health specialists from the United States concluded: “Judging from what has happened in Cuba in the last seventeen years, we argue that cynicism concerning the humane possibilities of modern technology must give way to a chastened optimism.” They added, “Our survey,” they wrote, “has shown that the dehumanizing side effects of bureaucratic institutional care are subject to significant correction in a social context which is free to respond to such concern.” 

Biotechnology took off in Cuba in 1981 when Cuban scientists produced Interferon in just six weeks during an epidemic of dengue fever that was killing dozens of people, many of them children. Here was an historic moment when biotechnology was able to respond to what many believe was U.S. bio-terror- ism. Suspicion that dengue was introduced into Cuba by the CIA was given added credence three years later by the testimony of the leader of one of the most murderous Cuban-American terrorist groups, Eduardo Arocena of Omega 7, during his trial on charges that included the murder of a Cuban diplomat in New York. As the New York Times reported at the time, “Mr. Arocena testified that he had visited Cuba in 1980 in connection with a mission to introduce ‘some germs’ into the country.” The New York Times did not report what Arocena said next: that whatever was carried to Cuba in that mission “produced results that were not what we had expected because we thought that it was going to be used against the Soviet forces and it was used against our own people and with that we did not agree.” 

This testimony is only one example of a body of considerable evidence that the United States government has carried out multiple chemical and biological attacks on Cuban people, animals, and plants over four decades. In 1982, two years after Arocena’s mission, the U.S. State Department put Cuba on a list of terrorist nations, where it still remains.Successes like the production of Interferon during an epidemic led to the opening in 1986 of the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, which, by the way, has a portrait of Fidel Castro on its walls. The United Nations World Health Organization obviously thought that portrait was there for good reason. In 1988 President Castro became the only head of government in the world to receive the Health for All medal awarded by the World Health Organization in recognition of what he had done not just in Cuba, but around the world. Cuba was the only country that had attained the goals established in 1988 that the World Health Organization hoped Third World countries could achieve by the year 2000. Cuba had reached those goals by 1983. The award was given again in 1998 to President Castro. Among the multiple reasons for these awards, two (one international and one domestic) must be mentioned: by 1991, Cuba had more doctors serving abroad than the World Health Organization; and Cuba’s infant mortality rate—that is, the number of babies who die before the age of one year for every 1,000 live births—decreased from 60 in 1959 to 6.5 in 2002. 

Cuban biotechnological accomplishments have received worldwide recognition. For example, in June 2002, the London Financial Times reported that half of a Canadian biotechnology company’s most promising cancer treatments come from Cuba and pointed out that while North American and European medical labs are producing meager results, “Cuba is winning a reputation for its talent in drug discovery.” 

Once the so-called Cold War ended, Washington could have ended sanctions if for no other reason than to help preserve Cuba’s medical and educational systems. Quite to the contrary, when Cuba’s economy plunged after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Washington tightened sanctions with the Cuban Democracy Act (the Torricelli law) devised by the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), the wealthiest and most influential Cuban American group. The goal of the Democracy Act, as explained by Rep. Robert Torricelli, is to “wreak havoc on that island.” 

The Democracy Act singles out biotechnology, banning all exports “in which the item to be exported could be used in production of any biotechnological product.” In addition, it blocks foreign subsidiaries of U.S. businesses from trading with Cuba. More than 75 percent of such trade was in food and medicine. The outright cruelty of this law motivated many scientists to try to come to the aid of Cuba’s clinics and hospitals. The Journal of the Florida Medical Association in 1994 published an article by Dr. Anthony Kirkpatrick that was a call to the conscience of U.S. medical personnel, painstakingly explaining how the sanctions contribute to death and disease. The March 1995 Scientific American reported that the American Academy of Neurology had sent a letter to President Clinton and to every member of Congress urging an end to sanctions against trade in food and medicine. 

In contrast, check out the view of Cuba’s biotechnology that reaches our living rooms and offices. In 1997, an article in U.S. News and World Report did list some of Cuba’s biotechnological accomplishments: the meningitis-B and hepatitis-B vaccines, streptokinase for dissolving blood clots, a skin growth factor for treating burns; diagnostic equipment to screen infants for various conditions, and so on. But all these accomplishments are reduced to manifestations of “Castro’s ego.” The overall vision is summed up in the article’s title, “The Island of Dr. Castro.” In case any readers miss the allusion, we are told that Cuba’s position “at the frontiers of biotechnology comes as a surprise to many scientists and to some it conjures up images of The Island of Dr. Moreau—H.G. Wells’s macabre tale of a mad scientist who creates animal-human hybrids on a remote tropical isle.” 

“The Island of Dr. Castro,” like many other articles, reports quite accurately that Cubans are trying to make biotechnology a major source of income. Biotechnology exports increased in 2001 by 42 percent over the previous year. Those products were sold to more than 35 nations. U.S. policy has consistently aimed at destroying any industry that makes money for Cuba. In 1960 President Eisenhower terminated the sugar quota. When Cuba turned to tourism after the fall of the Soviet Union, terrorists based in the United States declared war on tourism, bombing and shooting up hotels. When foreign companies formed joint ventures with Cuba, CANF engineered the 1996 Helms-Burton law aimed at penalizing those involved in trade with the island. 

An unending stream of propaganda portrays Cuba’s biotechnological industry as a cover for terrorism. In a flurry of such accusations, the Associated Press reported in December 1998 that “Cuba is suspected” of developing biological weapons: “Programs are easily hidden from spying satellites, cloaked by medical research.” Two weeks later, the New York Times reported that at least 17 nations “are suspected of having or trying to acquire germ weapons.” The Times said the “wild card” is that some, including Cuba, are also “considered architects of terrorism”—that is, they are on the State Department’s list of terrorist nations. Two months later came a New York Times Book Review article praising Vincent Patrick’s novel Smoke Screen, which, according to reviewer James Polk, “satisfies on all sorts of levels.” The reader can figure out who exactly and, at what level, is satisfied by this plot: “A deadly virus smuggled into the United States will be released by a Cuban scientist unless the American government gives in to demands of Fidel Castro.”Last May, just six days before former President Jimmy Carter was scheduled to fly to Havana, John Bolton, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, delivered a speech to the Heritage Foundation called “Beyond the Axis of Evil,” adding Cuba, Libya, and Syria to President Bush’s “Axis of Evil”—Iraq, North Korea, and Iran. He announced, “The United States believes that Cuba has at least a limited offensive biological warfare research and development effort. Cuba has provided dual-use biotechnology to other rogue states. We are concerned that such technology could support BW [biological warfare] programs in those states.” On that day and the next Bolton’s remarks were broadcast worldwide. 

But this time something unusual happened. Although some media reported the story, ready to demonize Cuba once again, others asked, “Where’s the evidence?” The Florida Sun-Sentinel brought up the question of timing, following up with an editorial that asked, “Where’s the beef?” New York’s Newsday called the charge of terrorism a “preposterous suggestion,” noting that the upshot is that Cuba has “the most sophisticated biomedical resources in Latin American,” and adding, “So what?” The Guardian of England, stating that Bolton “presented no evidence for his claims,” warned that “the U.S. threatened to extend its war on terror to Cuba.” The Baltimore Sun editorialized, “It’s a tired, old political line that more and more Americans are rejecting.” A Chicago Tribune editorial declared that such charges, “offered without a shred of proof,” begin “to look like a political stunt.” 

When Jimmy Carter toured the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in Havana with President Castro, he made his own announcement: that during briefings before his visit, he asked the White House, State Department, and CIA if there were any “possible terrorist activities that were supported by Cuba,” and the answer was ‘No’.” 

But the White House doesn’t need evidence. If President Bush and his coterie disapprove of a government, they can simply state that the regime has the potential for bioterrorism, since any laboratory has that potential. Last September, Wall Street Journal columnist Mary Anastasia O’Grady asked, “Is Fidel Castro busy cooking up viruses in Cuban labs to share with Islamic fundamentalists?” On Halloween night, Otto Reich, a Cuban-American who was then Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, was still embellishing the same charges to the Heritage Foundation that his Undersecretary Bolton delivered five months earlier. 

On June 1, 2002, at West Point, George Bush delivered a message to the new officers of his imperial army, graduating, he said, “in a time of war.” He warned them that, with technology, “even weak states and small groups could attain a catastrophic power to strike great nations.” He told them, “We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge.” He stated, “Our security will require transforming the military you will lead—a military that must be ready to strike at a moment’s notice in any dark corner of the world.” Will Cuba’s medical achievements make it one of those targets?

Historian Jane Franklin has been a contributing editor to Cuba Update, the journal of the Center for Cuban Studies in New York City, since 1979. Her books on Cuba are: Cuban Foreign Relations 1959-1982 and Cuba and the United States: A Chronological History.