As the Bush Administration packs up and the Obama Administration prepares to move in, legions of experts descend upon the new players to dispense free advice on the gamut of policy issues. With regards to the Western Hemisphere, particularly Cuba, based on background discussions I’ve had with folks during the past few weeks, this policy courting is generating many new ideas.
One of many new “ideas” missing from these discussions appear to be clearing up the matter of Cuba’s alleged activities with a biological weapons (“BW”) development program.
Two weeks ago Cuba hosted a Biotechnology Congress in Havana. Events leading up to this meeting included the opening of new vaccine plant and the signing of joint biotechnology cooperation agreements with Russia, China, Mexico, and Brazil. The European Union also announced it would be donating millions of dollars to Cuba for various programs including some money set aside for biotechnology research. Iran is also heavily invested in Cuba’s biotech research programs.
As in the case of nuclear research, developing countries always claim to be the white hats in the field of genetic research. Cuba has given “priority to this [biotech] field as there was a political will to work in this field and give priority to biotechnology and pharmaceuticals and for these products to be used in the health field and agriculture and also to make it a profitable business sector,” said Dr Eduardo Martinez of the Cuban Centre of Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB) during the opening conference in Havana. Say what they will, Cuba’s research in this are remains a matter of concern.
Dragged kicking and screaming, Cuba’s supporters in the United States will, sometimes vehemently, deny that Cuba has ever even had a biotechnology weapons research program. We are supposed to take their assurances at face value. It would be impolite to do any different. The Cubans can be trusted. In reality, the U.S. does not have a very clear picture of what Cuba is doing in this field and, that alone, should be cause for concern.
If Cuba has nothing to hide, then it should open up its secretive biotechnology program to international inspectors. But Cuba will not do that so long as the Communist Party of Cuba remains at the helm. Why?
Former political prisoners for one thing. There are many former political prisoners living in the United States, Europe, and throughout Latin American that can attest to being used as guinea pigs by Cuban scientists and doctors that were part of Cuba’s biotech program.
Then there are the former Soviet scientist who claim biotechnology cooperation with Cuba during the Cold War. Throughout the Cold War, and some experts allege to this very day, the Russians exported equipment and manufacturing know-how to the Cubans. Some of these former Soviet scientists have explained in very detailed and public accounts the location of some of the larger facilities in Cuba that were used for biological weapons research and manufacturing.
Cuba’s past and current relations with countries of proliferation concern. Based on published accounts by the Cuban government, it has engaged it what it calls legitimate biotech research with Iran, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Libya, North Korea, and Syria. To this day Cuba and Iran maintain strong and close relations that include extensive cooperation in the biotech field. Both Cuba and Iran are state sponsors of terrorism.
On December 2, the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism (“the Commission”) issued its final report to the Congress. One of its many findings was that more attention needed to be placed by the U.S. on the prevention of biological weapon attacks, even more so than attacks from nuclear devices.
One of the Commission’s action items includes having the Department of State engage in a global assessment of biological threats. It also called on the government to implement a targeted global biological threat prevention program. There are many other recommendations in the report that can be used as a foundation to deal with countries such as Cuba that have to completely disclose its current capabilities and past research activities.
Before the Obama team decides to intiate easing travel to Cuba or restrictions on remittances, it needs to take a closer look at issues that directly impact U.S., regional, and global security. This is one of several key issues that should be given prioriy consideration. Such an approach would be consistent with a careful reading of U.S. laws regarding U.S.-Cuba relations and would set a refreshing new tone in how we approach regional challenges.