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Inside Cuban 'Bioterrorism'

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Without an Iraq-style regimen of international inspections, no one may ever know for sure if Cuba has been producing biological weapons for sale to rogue nations such as Libya and Iran, as Undersecretary of State John Bolton recently alleged. Time was recently among the few foreign publications to get an inside look at some of Fidel Castro's most sophisticated biomedical plants — including the Center for Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology, which the Bush administration has cited as the locus of Cuba's bio-warfare capabilities, and the Finlay Institute, where many of Cuba's vaunted vaccines are produced.

Both the Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology Center (known by its Spanish initials CIGB) and the Finlay Institute are part of a massive biomedical complex on Havana's west side known as the "Scientific Pole." The CIGB alone takes up some more than 120,000 square feet, mostly full of gray, monolithic Soviet-era buildings, but laid out in a campus style reminiscent of U.S. software firms. Some of the hemisphere's most advanced research in pharmaceuticals, immunology, mammal cell genetics, plant molecular biology and even plant cloning and transgenic experimentation is conducted at the CIGB. The buildings are crammed with state-of-the-art equipment imported from Europe, Brazil and Japan. Visitors pass through myriad barriers that spray visitors, dressed in special suits, with a disinfectant mist. The CIGB, which has its own Intranet, does handle a considerable amount of work with the kinds of bacteria and virus agents that can be used to develop bio-weapons — but then, so do almost all vaccine-producing labs around the world.

Inside the Finlay, director Concepciˇn Campa, a Politburo member, oversees an assembly line of vaccines for diseases such as hepatitis, tetanus and meningitis. When a meningitis epidemic hit the U.S. in the late '90s, the pharmaceutical giant Smith-Kline came calling — working around the softened U.S. economic embargo against Cuba — to buy a special vaccine that Campa herself had developed. Asked if Cuba had any bio-weapons research going on in its labs that Time couldn't see, Campa strongly denied it. "You see all this equipment we've imported, even for things as simple as conserving the low temperatures we need?" she said then. "If it breaks, because we can't buy replacement parts from the (nearby) U.S., it costs us three times as much as it should for us to fix it. Our philosophy is not to produce vaccines purely for profit, but still, why would we bother with biological weapons when there is so much more revenue in selling vaccines to companies like Smith-Kline?"

The impression left by these tours was that Cuba, even if it wanted to traffic bioterror, is too desperately strapped for cash to market anthrax instead of the more lucrative medicines for which countries such as Britain, Brazil — and the U.S. — have been buying up for millions of dollars in hard currency or medical and technical swaps in recent years.

Cuba watchers agree that even Castro — a frustrated scientist who committed his communist revolution as much to medical research as sports prowess when he consolidated his power in the 1960s — probably wouldn't be foolish enough to compromise the credibility of labs like the CIGB and Finlay by allowing bio-weaponry to be produced in them. That doesn't mean, of course, that such research and production couldn't be going on. Cuba's advanced biological and chemical research capacity has long given the international community pause, especially after bioterrorism became such a broad concern after Sept. 11. "Cuba has at least a limited offensive biological warfare research and development" program up and running, John Bolton, a State Department undersecretary for arms control, insisted last week (although he would not reveal the intelligence sources his report was based on). Secretary of State Colin Powell later modified the charge: "We didn't say (Cuba) actually had some weapons, but it has the capacity and capability to conduct such research."

Castro angrily denounced the charge as a "sinister" political move. And as Jimmy Carter pointed out on Monday during his visit to Cuba, the Bush Administration could give offer him no concrete evidence before he left that Cuba is developing bio-weapons. American politicians who advocate normalizing relations with Cuba say that the White House's accusation of Cuban bioterror, which came just a week before Carter's visit, is simply a means of appeasing anti-Castro Cuban-Americans whose votes carry weight for Bush — especially for his brother Jeb, who needs them to win a second term as Florida governor this year. Carter, at Castro's invitation, inspected the CIGB this week — and today, Castro invited any "neutral and impartial" inspector from any country to do the same.