CASTRO´S HELP ON THE WEST NILE VIRUS EPIDEMIC?
Por Ernesto F. Betancourt
On August 23, 2002, the mouthpiece of the Castro regime, GRANMA, carried a strange official announcement about the West Nile virus. The government was informing Cuban citizens about an epidemic that has not affected Cuba but the United States. After revealing substantial familiarity with transmission of the virus by the culex mosquito and the impact of migratory birds on its dissemination, it makes the following offer to US public health authorities:
The Cuban government is willing to cooperate to its fullest capacity with public health authorities in the United States and other countries in the hemisphere in terms of research and any efforts needed to confront this new threat to the health of the citizens of this hemisphere, already affected by AIDS, dengue and other plagues which are threatening and aggravating the complicated state of health of the majority of our peoples to a greater or lesser degree.
Before the embargo loosening crowd presents Cuba´s offer as further arguments to Congress in favor of approving such a measure, we better look closely at Castro´s record on the West Nile virus, as well as his links with Saddam Hussein. Once we do so, Congress may conclude that it is most advisable not to loosen the embargo at this time.
Did Saddam enter into a contract with Fidel to develop the West Nile virus?
The October 18-25, 1999 issue of The New Yorker carries a well researched story by Richard Preston that created quite a furor at that time: the possibility that the mysterious encephalitis outbreak in New York City was really a deliberate bioterrorist attack generated by Iraq's Saddam Hussein. The CIA was described in the article as being deeply involved in research on biological terrorism and potentially interested in following up the Iraqi connection. However, according to a report on 10/12/99 in The Washington Post, a CIA anonymous spokesman arrogantly refuted the story, without offering any explanation to the mysterious outbreak. In fact, he stated "To imply that there is an investigation gives it more credibility than it deserves." At that time, Clinton was President and we wanted to avoid embarrassing issues that could demand forceful action. Clinton is a lover, not a fighter.
Regardless of whether or not Iraq is involved in this specific outbreak case, The New Yorker article offers an interesting lead into possible Cuba-Iraq cooperation in germ warfare that should not be ignored. On page 105 of the magazine, a quotation is made of a conversation in which Saddam refers to a dossier about "details of his ultimate weapon, developed in secret laboratories outside Iraq...Free of UN inspection, the laboratories would develop the SV1417 strain of the West Nile virus--capable of destroying 97 percent of all life in an urban environment..." Now, where could such a research be undertaken? A few characteristics will help narrow our location choices:
It must have a technological capability to undertake such research;
it must be a country friendly to Iraq and hostile to the US;
it must be outside the reach of any UN inspection;
it must be a close society, where these activities can be free of press coverage; and,
it must be located within the reach of migratory birds.
There is only one place on earth that meets those requirements: Castro's Cuba. Under Castro's close supervision, as will be explained further, a program for using migratory birds to introduce epidemics into the US has been going on in Cuba since the early eighties. In his book Biohazard, released in 1999, former Soviet Colonel Ken Alibek, reports that his boss in the Soviet germ warfare program returned from Cuba stating: "the Cubans have developed a germ warfare capability." The comment was made in a context that was neither accusatory nor politically motivated. It was a private conversation among colleagues. There are many other indications in this direction. The report presented in 1998 on the Cuba threat to US security by Secretary of Defense William Cohen, recognized that Cuba's capabilities in Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology could be directed to develop such weapons, although the US had no evidence at that time it had done so. No report is known on any Cuban effort to develop weapon delivery systems. However, Secretary Cohen's comment does not exclude the possibility that this is so because the Pentagon was not looking for migratory birds and mosquitoes as delivery systems. In conclusion, Cuba certainly meets the technological capability requirement. In this respect, it was interesting to hear the distinction made by Mr. Carl Ford, who heads the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the State Department, during his testimony early in June this year before Senator Dodd´s Sub-Committee on Western Hemisphere Affairs. The fact that Secretary Powell refused permission to John Bolton to testify before the Sub-Committee, sending Mr. Ford in his place, irked Senator Dodd. After a lackluster performance revealing his ignorance of the Cuba subject, Mr. Ford´s explanation of the difference between biowarfare effort and program made clear that Cuba could use unconventional means for delivery of whatever biowarfare products they may develop and produce. As I was hearing him saying that, in response to Senator Levin, the association with the encephalitis outbreak came back to my mind. Because migratory birds and mosquitoes are indeed an unconventional means of delivery. In conclusion, the intelligence community looks for delivery weapons, bombs and missiles, when they refer to a biowarfare program. However, if delivery is intended by means of birds and mosquitoes, it is downgraded to a mere biowarfare effort. This is the classic distinction without a difference that ignores the fact that the end result could still be a biological aggressive action. In Cuba´s case, besides the semantic distinction that does not make any difference in delivery capability, our intelligence, may have been further slanted by the fact that, at that time, the head of intelligence on Cuba at DIA was Ana Belén Montes, who on March this year confessed she had been a Cuban spy since 1985. In fact, she prepared the above mentioned report for Secretary Cohen.
Castro´s links with Saddam Hussein
Castro's hostility to the US is so well known that it does not require any documentation. As to friendly relations with Iraq, the links go back to the so-called Non-Aligned Movement meeting in Cuba in 1979. Castro even provided doctors to perform back surgery on Hussein. This led to a close relationship through the orthopedic doctor who performed the operation, Dr. Rodrigo Alvarez Cambra, who is actually President of the Cuban-Arab Friendship Society. In fact, on July 22nd this year, the Iraqi news agency, INA, reported Dr. Alvarez Cambra had met with Saddam Hussein and conveyed to him Castro´s support "against US threats. " As a fellow rogue state, Cuba has always supported Iraq at the UN against the US.
Getting closer to possible cooperation on germ warfare activities between the two countries, there is an intriguing piece of news. Dr. Manuel Limonta, Director of the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, an institution suspected of being a cover for germ warfare research and development, was reported in June, 1999 to have been dismissed from his position amid widespread rumors of corruption in his dealings with Iraq. On June 29, 1999, the regime officially reported his departure from the job, although with the clarification that no corruption was involved, he just wanted to go back to his research endeavors. But this reference to Iraq reveals that there is some exchange going on between the two countries in this field. What were the funds from Iraq Dr. Limonta was administering to be used for? In June 2002, Dr. Limonta was expelled from the Central Committee, along with former Foreign Minister Roberto Robaina. Attention of the press has focused on the Robaina case and the accusation that he received money from the former Governor of Quintana Roo in Mexico, a man who is being extradited to the US for drug dealings and money laundering. So far, however, nothing has been revealed about the reasons for the expulsion of Dr. Limonta. It is quite likely he is being set up as the scapegoat for biowarfare dealings with Iraq whenever necessary. The same pattern followed during the trial of General Ochoa and his colleagues to cleanse Castro from responsibility in drug trafficking seems to be emerging in this case.
The Cuban biotechnology industry and the research on migratory birds
It would be a digression to cover the developing of the biotechnology industry n this backgrounder. The reader is referred to the very comprehensive work done by Manuel Cereijo, a retired professor of engineering at Florida International University which can be downloaded from the Guaracabuya website. This industry is managed under the direct supervision of Castro, with his personal Support and Coordination Group acting parallel to the formal chain of command. Contrary to reports indicating it is an industry open and accessible, a staffer who defected recently reports plants are kept under very tight security rules, with access of staffers limited to the specific areas where they work.
In fact, during an evaluation I did of the UNDP´s Management Development Program in Latin America, I was surprised to find that Cuba had rejected a UNDP mission. A July 1993 UNDP mission to draft a program to provide management assistance and training to the industry, ended in failure, when an American member of that mission, Dr. Stuart Diamond, attempted to introduce a questionnaire asking about relationships among the network of industry enterprises. To the dismay of the professor, the next day the Cubans, belonging to Castro´s personal support staff, rejected his request. His professional good faith inquiry was seen as a spying effort. The UN was informed they did not want Americans doing any training and the negotiations ended in an impasse. So, not even those trying to help Cuba manage this industry better escape the veil of secrecy maintained.
As will be discussed further down, research and development undertaken in Cuba on bioweapons is precisely centered on developing virus strains suitable to be inoculated to the many migratory birds that fly North-South in the Fall and South-North in the Spring. So, there is an integration of germ or virus research and development with delivery systems development. Therefore, in principle, it can be concluded that Cuba is the most plausible candidate for the germ warfare research and development activities referred to by Saddam Hussein in The New Yorker article quoted above. Having concluded that, it will be advisable to look at other facts related to use of migratory birds-mosquitoes as delivery systems in germ warfare. First, two points related to the New York case:
1) It was widely reported in 1999 that there was a diagnostic turnabout in the case of the outbreak of encephalitis in New York when an alert staffer at the Bronx Zoo, pathologist Tracey McNamara, associated an unusual level of dead birds with swollen brains to the outbreak. As a result, it was concluded that the initial St Louis virus CDC diagnosis was incorrect. The outbreak was then linked to the West Nile virus. But no plausible epidemiological explanation is still available or has been shared with the public.
2) The virus was present in Africa and the Middle East. The West Nile fever was originally diagnosed in Uganda in 1937. There was an outbreak in 1950 in Egypt. The most recent outbreak took place in Rumania in 1996. John Roehrig of CDC said "it is not yet clear how the virus got to New York, but it could be from bird migration or from virus- carrying imported birds that infected the area's mosquito population." According to the researchers quoted, how this virus reached the US is an epidemiological mystery, since it had never been identified before in this Hemisphere.
As an investigative hypothesis for solving this epidemiological mystery, it would be worthwhile to consider some related events from Cuba. This hypothesis is predicated on linking a few facts.
1) Fact number one is a book published in 1998 by Miami Editorial Universal, that is, a year before the outbreak in New York. The book is entitled Natumaleza Cubana. Its author is Carlos Wotzkow, a former researcher at the Cuban Zoo Institute who now lives in Switzerland. The book is related to environmental damage to Cuba caused by Castro's regime and the author's personal travails. However, on page 54, Mr. Wotzkow accuses Dr. Rosa Elena Simeón of falsely blaming the US for a porcine virus epidemic that led to a decision to kill all pigs, an accusation for which, according to Mr. Wotzkow, she was rewarded with the presidency of the Cuban Academy of Sciences. The decision to kill the pigs "had a dual purpose, to accuse the CIA and the American government of introducing infectious diseases in Cuba and to confiscate the meat from domestic consumption in order to can it for export to Africa." This accusation against the CIA, incidentally, is rebutted in the Fall, 1999 issue of the quarterly journal Critical Reviews in Microbiology as being totally unfounded. Reflecting the prevailing confusion on these matters, the author of this research also considers Cuba is not engaged in developing biological weapons. We do not know, however, whether he has made the distinction previously referred to above between bomb and missiles and birds and mosquitoes.
2) On page 57 of Wotzkow's book, fact number two, the author explains what he calls the militarization of science in Cuba, as experienced at the Zoological Institute. He claims he was fired, among other reasons, for his opposition to a military project within the Institute. The project was proposed by Castro himself and led to the creation of what was called the Biological Front: "An idea to undertake biological warfare against United States territory through introducing viruses of infectious diseases inoculated in migratory birds." According to Mr. Wotzkow, as a result, the Zoo Institute--eventually merged into another agency--became associated with the Pedro Kouri Tropical Medicine Institute in research aimed at identifying viruses that could be transmitted through birds. Again, the reader is reminded this book was published a year before the New York encephalitis outbreak.
3) Raul Castro is reported to have expressed, in a private conversation early in the eighties, the intention of the Cuban Government to retaliate in kind against the US for introducing viruses such as the one that allegedly caused the Hemorrhagic Dengue epidemic, by resorting to the same tactics allegedly used by the US. This conversation, with a subordinate officer at present in exile, took place after they were hunting together and shot down a bird with a migratory tracing ring attached to its leg. In Alibek's book, Castro's decision to undertake the development of germ warfare capabilities is linked to his accusation that the US was responsible for the outbreak of Hemorrhagic Dengue in the early eighties. In addition, on January 29, 1997, Fidel Castro warned the US that Cuba "was a lamb that the dragon could find was filled with poison," a statement interpreted as a veiled threat of Cuba's potential use of germ warfare against the US. These statements tend to support Mr. Wotzkow's comment on the goal of the Biological Front. Fact number three.
4) Whatever the motivations, the fact is that Castro has made an investment in genetic and biotechnology facilities that is not commensurate with output or export figures for that industry. That huge investment in genetic engineering and biotechnology plants, reported by Jocelyn Kaiser in Science on November 28, 1998 to reach one billion dollars, could easily hide bioterror weapons activities. Since Cuba lacks the financial resources to make such an investment, one has to wonder if Hussein is paying for this in exchange for Castro doing his bidding in germ warfare. This may explain the link between Dr. Limonta´s dismissal and his handling of Iraq funds. This could be fact number four.
5) The research and development effort involved is described by Dr. Luis Roberto Hernández in an interview with El Nuevo Herald. dated 10/18/99. In that interview, Dr. Hernández, at that time a professor of Entomology at the University of Puerto Rico, reports he worked in the Biological Front Project until 1995, when he defected in London. Their mission was to identify and produce virus strains and select migratory birds to carry them. The center is at secret installations outside the Miramar biotechnology and genetic complex--where the rest of the biotechnology laboratories are located--at the farm La Chata,, the former country home of President Carlos Prío Socarrás. The Cuban researchers were unwittingly and naively helped in their program by American researchers from the Smithonian Institution, who shared with them information on techniques related to "ringing" migratory birds and analyzing the data obtained from that research about their migratory habits. According to La Revista Cubana de Medicina Tropical, Vol. II, 1996, unaware of what the Cubans were doing, CDC itself provided the Cubans in 1988 with strains of the St Louis virus to further their research. That is fact number five.
6) In July 1999, the Cuban government organized a trial, before the usual kangaroo court that has typified the Castro regime, accusing the US of genocide against Cuba. The court issued an unenforceable sentence ordering the US to pay reparations amounting to US$ 181 billion. This trial was based mostly on the embargo and actions such as the Bay of Pigs. Charge Number VII, however, covers accusations that the US was responsible for introducing the viruses that caused porcine and hemorrhagic fever epidemics as well as many other hostile actions in biological warfare. The individual accusations were later reported to being broadcast daily in one hour TV programs. Vitral, a Catholic Church publication, complained that these broadcasts aimed at encouraging US hatred among Cubans. This is fact number six
In conclusion, there is enough circumstantial evidence to warrant a further investigation to validate or reject the hypothesis that Castro has developed a biowarfare capability to deliver viruses by means of migratory birds and mosquitoes, instead of the conventional means based on artillery shells, bombs and missiles that are classified as weapons; that, somehow, that research and development effort was financed by Saddam Hussein; and, finally, that Castro´s motivation, outside of his profound hostility against the US, is predicated on alleged accusations that the US has waged biowarfare against his regime.
Could it be that Castro made the first West Nile bioterrorist attack in 1999?
The West Nile virus first appeared in New York in July and August shortly after birds returned North. Then, during the 1999 initial session of the UN General Assembly, the Cuban delegation made the genocide accusation the central issue of its attacks against the US, including undertaking biological warfare measures. The return of this delegation to Havana was unique. They were received at a mass event at Havana University, Castro addressed the event. On September 30, 1999, the Granma headline covering the event stated: "Historic and victorious battle right in the Empire's heart." Could this victory be the successful introduction of the West Nile virus in the US?
Surprisingly, among the delegation speakers at Havana University was Dr. Rosa Elena Simeón, the same woman who made the initial accusations against the CIA and now heads the agency directly accountable to Castro for overseeing research to send viruses to the US by inoculating migratory birds. There was no explanation given as to why this woman, who has no diplomatic role to play in the delegation to the UN General Assembly, was included. Maybe she came under diplomatic cover to verify delivery system preparations on the US side or because something went wrong.
Nobody is saying that these individual pieces of evidence prove beyond any reasonable doubt that the New York encephalitis outbreak has been caused by Cuba. However, they raise quite a plausible hypothesis for further investigation. As is said in police investigations, the evidence points to motive, opportunity and the weapon. It could be that CDC finds a completely unrelated explanation to this specific outbreak. But as long as they are not able to provide such alternative explanation, they neither have the right to summarily reject this hypothesis, nor to refuse to investigate, as was stated by the anonymous CIA spokesman to The Washington Post. At that time, CDC was engaged in much higher priority activities, such as developing pornographic movies to encourage safe sex among the San Francisco homosexual community. Besides, they may have been embarrassed by the fact that CDC unwittingly helped the Cuban research effort that may have resulted in creating this potential threat to the American people.
In the context of the possibility that Cuba is the surrogate country mentioned by Saddam Hussein in The New Yorker article, the urgency of a thorough investigation of these facts cannot be exaggerated. Americans have a need and a right to know. The situation demands a thorough and unambiguous explanation, not an arrogant cover-up as we got from the Clinton Administration. With a new Administration in power, the arrest of Ana Belén Montes, the increasing concern over weapons of mass destruction in the hands of Saddam Hussein and the outbreak this year of the encephalitis epidemic throughout the country, one would expect that such a hypothesis would get more attention.
Within this context, it is hard to understand why Secretary Powell continues to prevent Under-Secretary Bolton from clarifying and amplifying his testimony on Cuba´s bioweapons capability. It is also hard to understand that results of Ana Belén Montes plea bargaining are kept secret by the Justice Department. And please spare the bromide there are security concerns for national secrets since the lady passed all our secrets to the Cubans and then some. At a time when the Administration is being pressured to justify acting against Iraq, it is ironic it is unwilling to reveal or investigate further what could amount to a smoking gun that would ensure the support of the American people against Saddam Hussein.
With hundreds of persons already contaminated and dozens dead, the American people and Congress have a right to know the total background of the recent West Nile virus outbreak before a final decision is made on making concessions to Castro. And, if Congress persists even if the hypothesis is validated, the President will have a much stronger case to justify his veto.
Ernesto F. Betancourt