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BIOWEAPONS

Don't Trust Castro--Verify

July 21, 2002|DENNIS HAYS | Dennis Hays is a former ambassador to Suriname and former head of the Cuban affairs desk at the State Department.

WASHINGTON — For more than 20 years, the Soviets swore they were not producing biological weapons. They signed treaty after treaty outlawing such weapons and dismissed the testimonies of defectors who contradicted the official line as politically motivated.

They were lying.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin publicly acknowledged that the Soviets had a bioweapons program of staggering dimensions.

Similarly, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has always denied that he is in the bioterrorism business. Yet, during the brief window when he allowed on-the-ground inspections, more than 40 ''dual-use" facilities were discovered to be involved in prohibited research and production.

Now Cuban President Fidel Castro says we should trust him when he states that Cuba has no biological weapons program. Instead of taking his word, we should accept the offer he made in May to former President Jimmy Carter and conduct a full inspection of key biotech facilities. We need to know, one way or the other, if a nation 90 miles from our shores is experimenting with deadly biological agents.

It is important to separate what we know from what we suspect.

Here is what we know:

* Cuba has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to develop a sophisticated biotechnology industry. It has imported advanced equipment and invested in containment technology far beyond what is needed for traditional medical research. Cuba has hundreds of scientists who were trained in biotechnology in the former Eastern Bloc. No one questions the technical capability of Cuba to produce biological agents.

* Cuba is a hostile state. Castro's enmity toward the U.S. is a lifelong obsession. During the Cuban missile crisis, he urged the Soviets to launch a nuclear first strike on us. For more than 40 years, he has harbored fugitives from U.S. justice and supported an alphabet soup of revolutionary, subversive and narco-terrorist groups. As recently as last summer, he and his agents traveled to Iran, Iraq, Libya and Syria seeking common cause against our interests.

* Cuba has exported technology and provided training to other terrorist states. Unable to generate sufficient income from the legitimate production of biotech products, Cuba has turned to the sale of its expertise, according to the former head of research of Cuba's Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, Jose de la Fuente. He has charged that the Cubans have placed ''the prized fruits" of the center in Iran's hands.

Then there is what we suspect: A former colonel of the Cuban air force, Alvaro Prendes, possesses documents smuggled out of Cuba that describe in detail the biotechnology facilities that may serve as fronts for the production of deadly toxins.

Carlos Wotzkow, a leading Cuban scientist forced into exile in Switzerland, has written that the early phases of Cuba's biological warfare program were carried out within the Institute of Zoology. Wotzkow's account has been corroborated by another scientist-defector, Luis Roberto Hernandez, who has described Castro's interest in finding nontraditional ways to deliver pathogens, such as via migratory birds. While such methods would have seemed farfetched before Sept. 11, they now must be considered seriously.

Finally, Ken Alibek, the former Soviet scientist responsible for hiding the Russian program from international scrutiny, has noted the striking similarity between what the Soviets did to avert suspicion in the 1970s and 1980s and what the Cubans are doing now.

This issue is too important to allow it to become captive to the usual debate over Cuba policy. The effectiveness of the trade embargo or the best way to bring democracy to Cuba is not the issue here.

The question is, do the Cubans have biological or chemical weapons that threaten the United States?

As we have seen in Russia, Iraq and elsewhere, the only way to know for sure is for qualified experts to conduct unannounced inspections. As it happens, Cuba is a signatory to both the 1992 Biological Weapons Convention and the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. Under the latter accord, it must submit to such inspections when challenged by another signatory state.

It may, however, be unnecessary to force the issue. Castro opened the door to international scrutiny when he offered Carter ''completely free and total access, along with any specialists whom you may choose, to inspect any of our prestigious scientific research centers." Castro may well have thought that we would not call his bluff. But we should. It is in everyone's interest, even Castro's, to resolve this question--unless, of course, he has something to hide.

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