West Nile Virus --- Is Castro's Bioterrorism Threat Being Ignored?

Ernesto F. Betancourt
Article Type: 
Feature Article
Winter 2001
Volume Number: 
Issue Number: 

When the West Nile virus first emerged in the U.S as the cause of the encephalitis outbreak in New York, it was considered an epidemiological mystery. The discovery made by an alert veterinarian in the Bronx Zoo, Tracey McNamara, baffled the CDC because that virus had never been present in the Western Hemisphere. There was an initial search for explanations and one writer, Robert Preston, published a story in the October 18-25, 2000 issue of The New Yorker, that this was being investigated under the hypothesis that it could be the work of Saddam Hussein. In that story, Saddam is quoted as referring to "his final weapon, developed in laboratories outside Iraq...Free of UN inspection, the laboratories will develop strain SV1417 of the West Nile virus."

Needless to say that in the complacent environment that prevailed at the time, the possibility to select birds to "host" the introduction of viruses, such as the West Nile, in the U.S. was perceived as insane as, say, flying passenger planes as missiles into the World Trade Center. The whole idea was utterly rejected by an anonymous CIA spokesman who, in a story in The Washington Post of October 12, 1999, stated categorically that "to imply that there is an investigation gives more credibility to that hypothesis than it deserves." End of the story.

In the light of the awesome terrorist aggression we suffered on September 11, 2001, shouldn't we, at least, undertake some investigation of this hypothesis? Particularly, since the colossal breach in our security resulting from the arrest of Ana Belen Montes, the top intelligence analyst on Cuba at the Pentagon, as a Castro spy. Is it possible that previous categoric rejections of such hypotheses were tainted by opinions uttered or influenced by this Castro agent? True, we have to learn to live normal lives under the most absurd threats, but we must also stop rejecting these threats as hypotheses because they do not fit preconceived notions of what may or may not happen, or our ideological inclinations. This tragedy shows that anything is possible and, therefore, all hypotheses should be validated or rejected.

That is why the above hypothesis should be open for investigation. This suggestion is based on the fact that this was not so farfetched. And that there is enough circumstantial evidence to justify its being investigated. Here is why.

If Saddam was using another country as a surrogate in his efforts to develop biological weapons, the most logical one was Cuba. There are several reasons: 1) Cuba has been developing biological weapons since the 1980s and has thousands of scientists and technicians working in its bioengineering and genetic industry, which is attached to Castro's office; 2) Castro is an ally of Saddam Hussein and shares with him a pathological hatred of the U.S.; 3) Cuba is not subject to UN inspection; 4) it is a Stalinist society where there is no freedom of the press and an overwhelming repressive apparatus allows the regime to work in utmost secrecy; and, 5) it is very close to the U.S. mainland, allowing the use of migratory birds as "hosts" for viruses.

Additionally, in a 1998 book, Natumaleza Cubana, the author, Carlos Wotzkow, narrates how he was fired from his work as an ornithologist at the Institute of Zoology in the early 1980s. The reason, among others, his objection to a Castro order creating the Biological Front, an effort to develop viruses that could be carried by "host" birds or other means into the U.S. This work was assigned to the Institute of Zoology, and its institutional derivatives, in collaboration with the Pedro Kouri Tropical Medicine Institute. The question that comes to mind is why would Castro do that?

This was answered in the book Biohazard by Ken Alibek, a former deputy head of the Soviet Biological Warfare program, who defected about six or seven years ago and is now working as a consultant for the CIA and the Pentagon. In his book, Alibek reports that Castro's decision to seek Soviet assistance to develop a biological warfare capability was linked to his blaming the U.S. for outbreaks in Cuba. He also reports that such capability was developed.

To further document this explanation, the reader is referred to Granma Internacional, where the front page of the Spanish version carries a permanent window to report on "La Guerra Biologica de los Estados Unidos contra Cuba." The current insert is a six-part report on a roundtable broadcast on December 8, 2000, with the Minister of Science, Technology and Environment, Dr. Rosa Elena Simeon, and several of her collaborators. Previously, it included the pertinent section of the sentence in Cuba's trial of the U.S. for aggression, which had been twice presented to the UN General Assembly.

In a further confirmation of this motivation, there is a report of a personal conversation between a defecting officer and Raúl Castro, during which Castro's brother and Minister of the Armed Forces, stated early in the eighties that "we are aware the U.S. is waging biological warfare against us and what the Americans do not know is that Cuba is going to pay them back the same way." For security reasons, the name and occasion of this conversation cannot be revealed.

It so happens that Dr. Rosa Elena Simeon is the person responsible for the Frente Biologico that is developing the capability to wage biological warfare directly under Castro's oversight. She attended the UN General Assembly in 1999, the year of the encephalitis outbreak, a strange diplomatic assignment for an official responsible for science, technology and the environment. More so, since upon her return with the delegation to Cuba they were welcomed in person by Castro in an unusual event at Havana University during which Castro made reference "to their historic and victorious battle in the heart of the Empire." Could this battle have been the encephalitis outbreak? Was this a battle won by the Biological Front? Strange wording, indeed.

To add more concrete evidence to the Cuban efforts in developing the capability to wage such a campaign against the U.S., one can refer to the testimony of Dr. Luis Roberto Hernandez, an entomologist trained in Great Britain, who defected in London in 1995 and resides now in Puerto Rico. In a recent article in Encuentro en la Red, Dr. Hernandez debunks the regime's accusations of biological warfare by the U.S. against Cuba. And, in an earlier interview to El Nuevo Herald, on October 18, 1999, Dr. Hernandez asserted that he worked in the Biological Front and that "those were laboratories to identify and produce viruses to be used in birds as 'hosts' for their dissemination." These laboratories were kept under "strict secrecy."

A significant leak on the Cuba/Iraq link took place precisely at the time of the encephalitis outbreak. According to a June 24, 1999, Reuters dispatch, Dr. Rafael Limonta, who had been director of the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, had been cleared of corruption in his dealings with Iraq and was going to return to his activities as a researcher. This seems to indicate that there are some financial relations between the two countries involving biotechnology. Since the Center is a huge research operation with more than 1200 scientists and technicians in its staff, it is logical to assume that any research undertaken on behalf of Saddam is done there. Saddam has close personal links with Castro. In fact, liaison between the two countries is handled through Dr. Rodrigo Alvares Cambria, an orthopedic surgeon with close links to Castro, who performed surgery on Saddam's son when he hurt his back in an accident.

And the convergence of interests is indicated by the fact that Cuba has no financial resources to invest in what has been a non-productive industry, while Saddam has access to substantial oil revenues but severe limitations to undertake research. According to an article by Jocelyn Kaiser in Science, dated November 28, 1998, Cuba had invested one billion dollars in its biotechnology industry. Cuba is a bankrupt country that does not have the financial resources or credit mobilization capability to finance such an investment. And, the 2000 report by ECLAC on the Cuban economy did not have any statistics of the output of this industry or its exports. Isn't it reasonable to assume that this is due to the fact that these investments are not undertaken for economic reasons but for military purposes?

This does not mean that we must reach any conclusions or, much less, take any punitive actions. But, borrowing from police argot, these facts provide enough circumstantial evidence to indicate motive, means and opportunity. At least, in view of the surprising nature of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks and the possibility that our previous judgments on the West Nile virus may have been tainted by a key intelligence analyst working for Castro, they warrant an investigation. Of course, if the results reveal the hypothesis is valid, the problem this poses is very serious. But failing to find out and taking necessary preventive action could prove even worse.

Mr. Betancourt worked directly with Fidel Castro in 1959, after representing him in Washington during the insurrection against Batista. He organized the research department of Radio Marti, before it went on the air, and directed the station for its first five years.

Originally published in the Medical Sentinel 2001;6(4):121-122. Copyright © 2001 Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS).

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