Fidel Castro's Deadly
Secret - Five BioChem
Warfare Labs
From Insight Magazine (Washington Times)
Vol 14, No 26 July 20, 1998
By Martin Arostegui
The Cuban dictator is devoting a lot of his destitute island nation's budget to secretive biological- and chemical-weapons research. Will he share his germ arsenal with terrorists?
Not far from Havana's picturesque harbor, where ogling tourists and curvaceous prostitutes ply Cuba's only thriving form of free trade, stands the Luis Diaz Soto Naval Hospital, flanked by a newly built concrete laboratory complex about 400 feet long by 300 feet wide. Inside the compound, along a 165-foot acid-resistant work table with built-in circuit breakers, military biotechnicians reportedly experiment on cadavers, hospital patients and live animals with anthrax, brucellosis, equine encephalitis, dengue fever, hepatitis, tetanus and a variety of other bacterial agents.
Five chemical- and biological-weapons plants operate throughout the island, according to documents smuggled out of Cuba and made available to Insight by Alvaro Prendes, a former Cuban air force colonel who now is the Miami-based spokesman for the Union of Liberated Soldiers and Officers, a clandestine pro-democracy movement within Cuba's security services.
The credibility of the smuggled documents is enhanced by a recent classified Pentagon analysis. Also, these facilities have not been on the itinerary of such visiting dignitaries as retired Marine Gen. John Sheehan, the recently passed-over candidate for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who enthusiastically embraced normalizing relations with Havana following a recent round of junketing with Castro.
Pentagon, State Department and congressional sources also point to continuing Cuban support for international terrorism and drug trafficking. They tell Insight that, according to the CIA, Russian specialists still operate the electronic listening station at Lourdes on the northeast tip of the island which taps into U.S. communications. During the Persian Gulf War, this station forwarded strategic information to Iraq.
Reports smuggled out this year by dissident Cuban military officers and scientists are believed to be among the factors prompting Defense Secretary William Cohen to revise a Pentagon report sent to Congress last April which decertified Cuba as a threat to U.S. national security. The revised report, still classified but made available to an Insight reporter, states: "Cuba's air force is in disrepair and much of the regular army is demobilized, but the Castro government retains the potential to pose unconventional threats. It has the infrastructure which can be adapted to the production of chem-bio weapons."
A classified annex to the Pentagon's final report to Congress further warns: "According to sources within Cuba, at least one research site is run and funded by the Cuban military to work on the development of offensive and defensive biological weapons."
Why does the president ignore this? "Clinton just wants to avoid another front," says Ernesto Betancourt, former director of Radio Marti, a U.S. government broadcasting service. Betancourt believes that the administration is terrified of provoking a confrontation which could lead to another Cuban wave of refugees. "While maintaining the economic embargo to placate Cuban-American voters, Clinton desperately avoids making waves with Castro," Betancourt adds.
"The administration has been asleep at the switch on China, India and very possibly now on Cuba," Chairman Dan Burton of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee tells Insight. "They are simply not on the ball." Moreover, former U.S. ambassador to Colombia Lewis Tambs has the same concern: "If we cannot prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in our backyard, how can we hope to do so halfway around the world?"
Although Clinton has been sufficiently concerned about the general threat of chemical and biological terrorism triggering an internal domestic crisis by setting up a series of new response measures -- including expanded storage of antidotes, stepped-up inoculations of military personnel and a call for $250 million to train first-responder teams at state and local levels -- he appears to be taking no action against Castro.
According to the documents obtained by Insight, Castro initiated his chemical-weapons program in 1981 when Soviet technicians built a plant to produce tricothecen, the main component of "yellow rain," in an underground tunnel complex at Quimonor in Matanzas province. The program was expanded some years later with the construction of another chemical-weapons facility in Pinar del Rio, where Cuban and Soviet technicians began experimenting with mixtures of germs and toxins to produce anthrax, the documents assert.
Drastic cutbacks in Russian subsidies and military aid to Cuba did not dissuade Castro from further expanding his development of germ warfare. According to Betancourt, classified CIA reports dating back to 1989 describe Cuban efforts to acquire technology and equipment to manufacture biological weapons.
The exile reports back this up: While Cuba's economy collapsed, Dr. Maria del Pilar y Gloria de la Campa, a biochemist and Politburo member on Castro's presidential staff -- whose real name is Gladys Llanusa -- made repeated trips to Europe, the Middle East and the former Soviet Union to arrange related purchases, these reports say. A centrifugal reactor capable of 10,000 revolutions per minute, used to separate biological microorganisms from solid and liquid substances, was acquired through Comicondor, an Italian company in Milan which also supplies technology to Libya for Col. Muammar Qaddafi's biological-weapons experiments.
Cuba's chemical- and biological-weapons production is administered through a network of state-controlled biogenetic industries operated by interlocking front companies linked to the Defense and Interior ministries. Manuel Cereijo, a professor of electronic engineering at Florida International University in Miami who has debriefed more than 300 Cuban scientists, estimates that from an original investment of $1.6 million in 1980, Cuba's biogenetic industry has grown into a $2 billion-a-year venture. "This unprecedented level of investment is comparable with the biotechnologies of the most advanced industrial countries in Europe and the United States. It's out of all proportion to Cuba's small and bankrupt economy which is desperately undeveloped in all other areas," Cereijo says.
Eleven biochemical plants currently are operating in Cuba, half of which are believed to serve military purposes, according to the Florida professor. With the exception of some cattle inoculants, very little vaccine is being produced for medical or commercial purposes, his sources say. The Prendes documents explain:
The two newest laboratories, built near military installations on the east side of Havana Bay have started operating during the last five years. The largest facility, located 100 meters from the naval hospital, was completed in late 1993 and inaugurated in April 1994, while another began functioning in early 1995 close to the J. Finlay military hospital.
These plants are supervised closely by a military-scientific coordinating body composed of top army and intelligence officers. They include former armed-forces chief of staff Gen. Ulises Rosales del Toro and counterintelligence chief Col. Librado Reina Benitan. Another officer with an extensive track record in special operations, Gen. Julio Casas Regueiro, also is supervising the project, as are two personal deputies to Defense Minister Raul Castro (a Col. Alonso and a Brig. Gen. Milian) and the chief of investments for the armed forces, Lt. Col. Sergio Sanchez.
According to Cuban sources with personal access to the project's rec-ords, a team of specialists in strategic military construction, carefully vetted by Cuban counterintelligence, carried out much of the construction and installation.
The Italian-manufactured centrifugal plant and other laboratory equipment were transported to Cuba in 1993 onboard a Panama-registered vessel crewed by carefully selected Cuban naval personnel. Records indicate the ship, the Cristina Amary, previously used for sensitive cargo, is leased to front companies operated by the Cuban military intelligence, Cubanacan S.A. and Cimex, which intelligence experts say channel financial proceeds from tourism and other state-run enterprises into military operations. The intelligence sources also maintain that accounting records for the lab's construction are meticulously covered up through authorized funding for extensions to existing medical facilities and the remodeling of Havana's historical El Morro Fortress.
"The extensive covert arrangements indicate plans to use the material produced in the plants in an offensive capacity or for genocidal purposes to eliminate centers of antigovernment unrest," says Col. Prendes, who was a Cuban top gun and chief air-defense strategist before being forced into exile in 1994 when he called upon Castro to resign. SS-22 medium-range missiles acquired from the Soviet Union in 1990 are installed at coastal batteries near the most recently built laboratories, according to the colonel. Within easy striking range of Florida, these missiles could be armed with chemical or biological warheads.
Rather than using conventional military delivery systems, however, more insidious methods are being tested to infect civilian communities. Experiments are reported to be underway in the use of insects, rats and even house pets as contaminants. Cuba's biowarfare technicians also have developed tetanus-carrying antipersonnel mines in the form of easily built, low-explosive devices armed with infected needles. These small and inexpensive booby traps reportedly are being used for perimeter security around forced-labor camps, underground sources report from Cuba.
Deliveries of biological weapons also could be facilitated through the numerous terrorist and Mafia organizations keeping close ties to Havana. According to Tambs, "There is no doubt about continuing Cuban support for the the National Liberation Army and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in their alliance with major drug-trafficking cartels to topple the Colombian government."
Cuba's support for terrorism is widespread. Spain's Interior Minister, Jaime Mayor Oreja, despite his country's important investments in Cuba, accuses Havana of providing asylum and intelligence support to Basque separatist ETA terrorists. And the State Department is worked up about recent reports indicating Cuban involvement with guerrillas of the Zapatista National Liberation Army in Mexico. All these are potential markets for Cuba's chemical and biological weapons.
"We are producing medicines, not weapons," insists a spokesman for the Cuban interests section in Washington, who claims to be head of the unit but does not give his name. "We deny the Pentagon's charges of offensive potential in our biogenetic industry," he says. A State Department official who says he is uncomfortable about the subject of Cuban biochemical weapons -- and asks not to be named -- nonetheless says for the record, "Any evidence that Castro could manufacture biological weapons is strictly circumstantial. We don't see much indication that he is doing it." The U.S. official points to the embargo of Cuba as an effective means to curtail the communist island nation's biochemical research, citing a recent example in which a British company seeking to enter into joint biogenetic ventures with the Cuban government was blocked by U.S. sanctions, due to partial ownership of the company by U.S. citizens. "We are keeping an eye on it," he says reassuringly.
"These labs operated by the Cuban military and interior ministries are highly secure and off-limits to foreigners and visiting scientists," Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen warned in a recent House speech. While she and other members of Congress have called for on-site inspections of the Cuban facilities, State Department officials believe "it would be very tricky. The Cubans could claim the right to inspect our industries. Getting the U.N. involved would be very difficult."
"A factor which must be considered is the deeply sadistic and psychotic nature of Castro's personality," says Prendes, who has known him personally since serving as one of his ace pilots in repelling the 1961 CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion. "He is determined to hold on to power until the very end, to take everyone down with him." And Castro's eight-hour speeches still are punctuated by apocalyptic rhetoric: "Communism or death. ... After me comes the deluge. ... The last wish of a revolutionary is to pull the trigger against his enemy, explode a land mine."
How ruthless is Castro? Would he actually use these weapons of mass extermination? Consider:
Among the long line of distinguished foreign visitors who have enjoyed the opportunity of being hosted and entertained by Cuba's Maximum Leader, some have been surprised to discover that he is an avid herpetophile, or reptile lover. A multimillionaire Spanish entrepreneur and mayor of a luxurious resort city who regularly visits Cuba and is on first-name terms with Fidel recently told an Insight reporter that he never will forget being shown around the last true socialist's private game preserve at Guahnacabiles, occupying an entire peninsula in the western part of Pinar del Rio. While touring the lush paradise, he was amazed to come upon a massive snake farm attended by military personnel.
Castro explained that this is where he breeds a deadly viper discovered by his troops in Angola -- a snake which can kill a human instantly.
Dissident sources often have reported that these poisonous snakes are used as guards by Castro's security men. They anchor the snakes to stakes using long tethers as if they were prison guard dogs. Few prisoners dare even try to escape. So impressed was the mayor by Castro's Jurassic Park ruthlessness that Fidel sent him a baby snake as a birthday gift. It was returned to sender.
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