- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 11, 2002

The Bush administration's announcement this week that Cuba is developing biological weapons has set off a political firestorm, with some saying the White House has no such evidence and others saying they have had their suspicions for years.
What seems certain is that, for a developing nation, Cuba has an unparalleled biotechnology industry.
President Fidel Castro's communist government has pumped an estimated $1 billion into the field during the past 16 years, and Cuban scientists have developed many novel medicines, which are sold abroad and which yield as much as $125 million annually for the nation's fragile economy.
Among other successes, Cuba's biotech scientists have manufactured genetically engineered vaccines against hepatitis B and meningitis B, which it distributes to its residents. Cuba also ships the vaccines to India, former Soviet republics and throughout Latin America.
But critics suspect that Cuba's scientists also are fostering the development of biological weapons. Specifically, they say the island's vaccine-making expertise is being sold to rogue nations such as Iran, which can use the technology to manufacture weapons.
John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, got the issue rolling in a speech on Monday.
"The U.S. believes that Cuba has at least a limited offensive biological-warfare research and development effort," he said. "Cuba has provided dual-use biotechnology to other rogue states."
But other than to describe the potentially dangerous uses of Cuba's medical technology, the Bush administration has offered no hard evidence that the island nation is exporting biological weapons.
Cuba called the charge "loathsome" on Thursday, and critics complained that the charges were leveled only to slow a growing campaign to lift the U.S. economic embargo on the island nation.
Former President Jimmy Carter is scheduled to begin a five-day visit to Cuba tomorrow.
[Last night, Mr. Castro denied the U.S. charges and challenged American authorities to offer evidence.
[Speaking live on state television, the Cuban leader called on U.S. officials to "present even the most minimum proof" something he said they would find impossible to do because such evidence "does not and cannot exist."
["No one has ever presented a single shred of evidence that our homeland has conceived a program that develops nuclear, chemical or biological weapons," Mr. Castro said. "The doors of our institutions are open. Cuba has absolutely nothing to hide."
[Mr Castro's speech, broadcast across the island, was the Cuban government's first detailed response to the charges that Mr. Bolton leveled during an address at the Heritage Foundation.
["The only thing true in Bolton's lies is that Cuba is 90 miles away from United States territory," said Mr. Castro. The Cuban leader described the United States as "a superpower that has thousands of nuclear weapons but cannot vanquish the human being."]
Mark Rasenick, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago's medical school, said "the charge is ill-conceived and made without any factual basis."
"There is no evidence," he said.
Cuba is not the only developing country with the ability to make biological weapons, experts say. In particular, Asian countries such as Indonesia and Singapore have burgeoning biotechnology centers.
"Much of the technology used to make vaccines can be used for malevolent purposes," said Amy Smithson, a specialist on chemical- and biological-weapons control at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington. "It's a very difficult thing to make a determination that a country is doing that."
Jose de la Fuente, ex-director of research and development at Havana's Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, wrote in October in the Nature Biotechnology journal that between 1995 and 1998, Cuba sold Iran production technology for hepatitis B vaccine, among other products.
The technology used to create vaccines can be easily converted to manufacture biological weapons, said Ken Alibek, who served as second-in-command of the Soviet biological-warfare program before defecting to the United States in 1992.
Mr. Alibek said he does not have any direct knowledge that Cuba is experimenting with biological weapons. But he said he has "strong suspicions," which he raised in his 1999 book "Biohazard."
"There a few small differences in producing vaccines and weapons," Mr. Alibek said. "But the knowledge is essentially the same."
He said Cuba has the sophisticated fermentation vats needed to manufacture both vaccines and pathogens. He said he has always been puzzled by the emphasis of Cuba's biotechnology program on drug production instead of agriculture.
"It's quite interesting that a poor country has this type of expertise in biotechnology when its people are hungry," said Mr. Alibek, who testified on the topic in Congress last year.
Others, though, see a less evil goal.
"Cuba got all excited about biotechnology because Castro saw it as a high-margin business that would make money," said Dr. Byron Barksdale, director of the nonprofit Cuba AIDS Project.
Dr. Barksdale said Mr. Castro had hoped biotechnology would turn into one of the country's top economic propellers.
So far, though, that hasn't happened. The industry's annual sales fluctuate between $45 million and $125 million and rank about sixth, behind even seafood exports, said John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.


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