The issue of bacteriological weapons in Cuba is back in the news. Author Patrick Vincent has a new novel, Smoke Screen, based on the premise that a threat to the US originates within Cuba's capable and world-recognized medical establishment. Although Smoke Screen is a work of fiction, it contains enough elements of credibility to alarm the ordinary reader. In October, 1998, I published an article on possible Cuban bacteriological capabilities, so the issue is not new to me and my readers . The new feature is Vincent's acknowledgment of assistance from former Soviet weapons specialist and KGB Colonel Ken Alibek. We await with interest the sale of movie rights to the book. But what really is going on in Cuba? Certainly, Havana has facilities and specialists with the know-how to produce bacteriological agents. However, weapons production would require an advanced calculation of Cuban goals and objectives.

I find it difficult to attribute to anyone in the Cuban leadership any motives remotely similar to what we believe has driven rogue states such as Iraq or North Korea to engage in programs to develop weapons of mass destruction. But this is not to say that somewhere in the Cuban establishment there may be persons who have gone forward with bacteriological projects out of professional pride or a feeling that they would be "nice to have," just in case. But I would wonder if a Cuban military man would like to unleash a dangerous and indiscriminate weapon so close to home.

In Washington there is some debate on this issue. The Pentagon tends to say yes, the State Department says that they have not confirmed the existence of any stockpile of these agents or weapons. Perhaps the issue will surface as an item for debate in the coming presidential race.


The conventional wisdom among Cuba watchers in Washington is that Cuba will be stable as long as Fidel Castro is in good health and at the helm of the government in Havana. But who might be the number two in Cuba? Will that Castro successor be powerful and wise enough to hold the government and country together? Nobody can answer these questions. Animosity is well known to exist between the leaders of the Ministry of the Armed Forces (MINFAR) and the Ministry of the Interior (MININT). It is analogous to the classic military/KGB competition and split in the former Soviet Union. But what will happen if Castro disappears from the scene without prior warning or preparation? Pessimists predict an inevitable struggle for power among the survivors. Optimists think the US and Cuba will reach some sort of agreement long before Castro departs.

Pragmatists go beyond optimists and pessimists and ask: Who will maintain law and order until the island becomes stable and "democratic?" The pragmatic answer is: the armed forces. Then one should ask, would this be exclusively Cuban forces or perhaps forces from outside the country? The preceding theoretical exercises are not fiction or fantasy, but are elements of the scenario Washington faces now. Castro will be 73 on August 13, and does have some health problems.


The Cuban government admitted to the US that it faces a problem with drug traffic in its territory. However, it argues for greater resources to fight this war. Cuban officials denied permission to US Coast Guard ships to enter into Cuban waters in "hot pursuit" of suspected drug traffickers. In addition, Cuban officials sought to link agreement to a comprehensive and more substantive drug policy with larger issues and bigger players in the Clinton administration. The US reaction was a polite "no".

Castro's agents have cooperated with the US in minor and isolated cases of Colombian drug smugglers, but at the same time they maintain good relations with Colombian and Mexican big-time drug figures. Is Cuba playing the role of a double agent? So far, no one in the Clinton administration has been willing to address this question.


The Cuban government is fighting corruption in its ranks. The country is divided in two economies, the dollar and the peso. And a dual market: the official and the black one. But the reality defies government efforts at reform. If you don't have dollars you cannot satisfy your daily needs. People in high positions, especially those that deal with foreign business, have the opportunity to make hard-currency fortunes that can be sequestered overseas. The only solution Castro has is to improve the economy overnight or to look the other way.

Most Cubans realize that the Ministry of Tourism is the most corrupt branch of the government, followed by the Ministry of the Interior. Current reform efforts are aimed at the Ministry of Tourism, but Castro cannot afford to jail his secret police or the ordinary persons who hustle dollars for the country. Cuba is a victim, as were other communist countries in the past, of its own political system.


Cuba is not considered a threat to the US from the military or political perspectives according to most observers in Washington. Castro's popularity and influence elsewhere in Latin-America is close to none. Castro's current flirt with China and Russia, such as offering listening post facilities is just that: a temporary engagement for short-term economic survival, not an ideological or long term romance. Cuba and Castro are not an issue to antagonize the US from the standpoints of Beijing or Moscow. If Castro wants to continue the status quo, he can do so by keeping a low profile as the presidential election unfolds in the US. On the other hand, any wrong political move by Castro could easily become a dangerous election issue.

Will Castro resist temptation and avoid attracting political attention from the US? Castro will show wisdom with a low-key posture for the coming 18 months. Whatever the outcome of the US election, a Cuba connection in the campaign would appear to have only down-side risk factors for Castro, his successor and his country.


Marcelo Fernández-Zayas

Marcelo Fernández-Zayas is a political analyst with more than 30 years of experience in journalism in Washington, D.C.

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