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Cuba

Biological

Last Updated: June, 2012

Cuba provides an opportunity to examine the dual-use nature of modern biotechnology, which on the one hand has substantially benefited health delivery, agriculture, and pharmaceutical and chemical industries, yet also presents a dark side, namely, the possible application of biotechnology for purposes of warfare, terrorism, and criminality. Cuba ratified the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) in 1976. However, in 2002, the U.S. government lodged the first of what was to become a series of accusations that Cuba both fostered the international proliferation of biological weapons and possessed a national biological warfare (BW) capability. The U.S. government has not produced any hard evidence to support its charges. [1]

The sections that follow discuss the history of Cuba's robust biotechnology industry, its current status, and its potential dual-use capabilities that might allow it to produce biological weapons in the future if a political decision were made to pursue a BW program.

History

In 1960, President Fidel Castro proclaimed that education and science, especially biotechnology, were the future of Cuba. Castro was responsible for reorganizing the Cuban Academy of Sciences (established in 1861) and for making funding available to build the new National Center for Scientific Research (known by its Spanish acronym "CENIC"). CENIC, which became operational in 1965, was to be the primary training facility for Cuban bioscientists, including those who came to staff its major biotechnology laboratories.

Biotechnological development was given a substantial boost as a result of an epidemic of dengue fever that broke out in Cuba in 1981. Cuba had previously experienced outbreaks of dengue fever, most recently in 1977, but the 1981 outbreak was especially damaging due to the emergence of two separate dengue fever viruses, types DEN-1 and DEN-2, with the latter causing the deadly dengue hemorrhagic fever. By the time the epidemic was over, 344,203 Cubans had been struck by the disease; of these, 10,312 contracted dengue hemorrhagic fever from which 158 died. [2] This unprecedented disaster starkly revealed shortcomings in the Cuban public health system, which Castro attempted to cover up by claiming that the outbreak had resulted from a U.S. biological attack.

In 1981, CENIC organized a meeting of 12 directors from various research institutes, establishing the Biological Front (Frente Biologico) as a vehicle to expand the participation of scientists in political decision-making affecting scientific issues. The Biological Front was designed to coordinate the needs and interests of various sections of government, forming a policy-making body capable of involving different factions interested in the direction of Cuban biotechnology research. [3]

One of Castro's initial orders to the Biological Front called for research and development into interferon. It has been hypothesized that Cuban scientists determined that the protein interferon, which is produced naturally by the human defense system when attacked by viruses, presented the most promising therapeutic agent for treating dengue fever, and it was used as a treatment beginning in 1981. [4] Cuban scientists received information and training from scientists in the United States and Finland for their initial research into interferon. [5] It also appears that scientists from the former Soviet Union assisted Cubans in the development of the protein. [6] The scientific work done in Cuba was initially carried out at a make-shift laboratory in West Havana with personal oversight by Castro, but then was transferred to the Center for Biological Research (CIB) after its inauguration in 1982. At this stage, interferon production was intended to be utilized as a "model" for further development of "genetic engineering and bioprocessing." [7]

CIB was a major beneficiary of Soviet scientific techniques, as many of its students and researchers received training in the USSR. Cuban scientists were able to expand and improve on the Soviet methods, in the process developing a higher level of expertise in gene manipulation and molecular virology, monoclonal antibody production, immunochemistry, and tissue culturing, sometimes exceeding their Soviet counterparts.

In 1982, Cuba joined the effort led by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) to establish the International Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB). Over the years, 45 Cuban scientists have received advance training at the ICGEB's two main facilities in Trieste, Italy, and New Delhi, India. Additionally, 15 collaborative research projects between Cuban and the ICGEB have been funded by the latter. [8]

The Cuban biotechnology enterprise received a substantial boost when the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB) was inaugurated in 1986. Upon becoming operational, the Center immediately expanded the size and capability of the Cuban biotechnology sector by supplying more advanced equipment and technology for scientific research. It has been estimated that the Cuban government invested over $150 million to build and equip the CIGB. [9] The CIGB became the focal point of the Scientific Pole (Polo Cientifico) in West Havana, which is also the location of approximately 50 additional scientific facilities. The Cuban government designated biotechnology a high priority and invested the funds to help Cuban biotechnology achieve world-class status. As a result by the mid-1990s, Cuba had created one of the most technologically advanced biological research industries in the world, able to compete favorably with many industrialized nations.

Despite its advanced biotechnology sector, the Cuban government under Castro has throughout its history repeatedly denied interest in acquiring biological weapons capabilities. However, there have been occasional claims to the contrary. In the 1980s, former Cuban Army officers alleged they had received training in nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) warfare. One army officer asserted that his units were trained to poison U.S. water supplies and animals with pathogens that cause such diseases as anthrax, yellow fever, and cholera. [10] None of these assertions have been substantiated.

During the 1990s, Cuba began to experience the effects of the break-up of the Soviet Union. With assistance from the Soviet Union, the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces had developed into a well-trained and combat-ready force by the late 1980s. Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, however, the massive flow of foreign assistance that the USSR had provided for many years to Cuba ceased. [11] Facing bankruptcy, the Cuban government cut its military budget by 50 percent, which resulted in a decrease in the combat strength of regular troops to between 50,000 and 65,000. The overall combat readiness of these troops also decreased dramatically, leaving it now a largely defensive force. [12] With the decrease in Cuban military preparedness generally, it is reasonable to assume that the capabilities it once possessed in the biological defense area, if any existed, have also declined.

Status

Cuban scientists pursue many research interests as they attempt to address the technological needs and desires of those both within and outside of Cuba. In the past two decades, Cuba has successfully developed a meningitis B vaccine, hepatitis B vaccine, [13] cattle tick "vaccine," and monoclonal antibodies for kidney transplants. Cuba has also developed products through CIGB including vaccines for pneumonia, diphtheria, anemia, and various other diseases. [14] Scientific institutions also have conducted trials involving epidermal growth factor; cancer, AIDS, and hepatitis C vaccines; and pest-resistant sugar cane. These activities clearly demonstrate Cuba's versatility in biotechnology research and production. [15] As of February 2009, CIGB is "currently working on 20 new projects that include the development of 40 products to treat several diseases." [16]

As the Cuban biotechnology industry has expanded over the past decade, the nation has become a major source of both medicine and scientific technology to the developing world. Cuba currently has technology trade agreements with at least 14 countries, with negotiations for trade underway with several other states. In the past decade, Iran, China, India, Algeria, Brazil, and Venezuela have become the main recipients of Cuban technology. [17] Cuba has also helped to initiate joint biotechnology enterprises within developing countries, specifically Iran, China, and India, transferring technology from several different scientific institutions, including the CIGB and the Center for Molecular Immunology. [18] Cuba has attempted to repay parts of its debt to Brazil, Columbia, and Venezuela by exporting pharmaceutical products to these countries. [19]

Castro stated that Cuban biotech products began to be exported in 1990, with exports increasing in the subsequent decade. [20] Reports from Iran claim that BIOCEN started producing large amounts of hepatitis B vaccine to export to Iran in 1995, and thus established the foundation for Cuban-Iranian cooperation in biotechnology. [21] The level of cooperation between the two countries increased dramatically in 2001, as Iran began constructing a $600 million biotechnology institute with the support of the Cuban government and technical assistance from the CIGB. According to reports, the institute construction is now complete and a high level of cooperation between the two countries remains. [22] There also have been reports that that Russian, Cuban, and Chinese scientists were helping to increase Iran's biotechnology capabilities through collaborative projects at Iranian universities, military institutes, and governmental facilities, including Tehran University, the Pasteur Institute, and the Razi Institute. [23]

In September 2009, Cuba renewed a Memorandum of Understanding for Biotechnology Cooperation with China. [24] The two countries plan to cooperate in the areas of nano-sciences and nanotechnology. [25] They have also indicated an interest in public health cooperation, particularly in the ophthalmology field. [26]

Alleged BW Capabilities

In 1998, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) released a report suggesting a potential Cuban BW program. [27] It stated: "Cuba's current scientific facilities and expertise could support an offensive BW program in at least the research and development stage. Cuba's biotechnology industry is one of the most advanced in emerging countries and would be capable of producing BW agents." Thus, nothing damning was noted by the DIA in 1998, only that Cuba had the potential to acquire biological weapons should its leadership so decide. In a subsequent report, issued in 2000 by the U.S. Department of State, seven states were identified as sponsors of international terrorism, including Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Cuba, Sudan, and North Korea. According to the authors, it was "alarming" that several of these states were believed to also have a BW capacity, although Cuba was not specifically mentioned in this regard. [28]

As a result of two events in 1999, there was a flurry of interest and concern about a possible Cuban BW program. In June, Biohazard, a book written by Dr. Ken Alibek, an important defector from the former Soviet Unions BW program, was published. The book included passages in which Alibek stated that although he did not have firsthand knowledge of Cuba's BW programs, his boss, Major General Yuri Kalinin, after a visit to Cuba in 1990 had said that he was convinced the Havana government was deeply involved in a BW research effort. [29] A strong indication of this, according to Alibek, was that the Cubans used the same cover story as had the Soviets; for example, factories that are said to produce single-cell bacteria for animal feed are actually designed to produce bacteria for biological weapons. Alibek has also asserted that the Soviet Union provided many kinds of direct assistance to Cuba, including BW-related knowledge and equipment. Although there were those who questioned Alibek's contentions, [30] due to his stature as a knowledgeable BW expert they could not be ignored. However, there is no concrete evidence to substantiate these allegations.

Another private person, Manuel Cereijo (an engineer affiliated with the University of Miami), published a voluminous assessment in 1999 of the threats that Cuba posed to U.S. security, including the supposed biological weapons threat. [31] While not stating directly that Cuba actually possesses biological weapons, Cereijo asserted that Cuba has acquired fermenters, filtration equipment, and collections of pathogens from Eastern Bloc countries that are the same "...used to develop and manufacture bacterial biological weapons." [32] No evidence supported these assertions, however.

In 2002, senior U.S. government officials began to make serious allegations regarding a potential Cuban BW program. During an address to the Heritage Foundation, a private conservative think tank, then Under Secretary of State John R. Bolton claimed that:

Here is what we now know: The United States believes that Cuba has at least a limited offensive biological warfare research and development effort. Cuba has provided dual-use biotechnology to other rogue states. We are concerned that such technology could support BW programs in those states. [33]

Bolton's statement was widely quoted in the mass media and became a major issue in Washington, DC, as it implied that Cuba was not complying with its obligations under the BWC, possibly because it was undertaking an offensive BW development effort (research, even if "offensive," is not mentioned in the BWC and therefore does not fall under its provisions). Attempting to defuse a sensitive situation, Secretary of State Colin Powell at a later press briefing answered a question concerning Cuba as follows:

As Under Secretary Bolton said recently, we do believe that Cuba has a biological offensive research capability. We didn't say that it actually had such weapons, but it has the capacity the capability to conduct such research. This is not a new statement... So Under Secretary Bolton's speech which got attention on this issue again wasn't breaking new ground as far as the United States' position on this issue goes. [34]

Several senior officials subsequently followed Powell's lead in expressing U.S. concerns about Cuba's possibly misusing its biotechnological capabilities. [35] Despite Powell's claims to the contrary, Powell's statement is a significant departure from Bolton's speech, in that only a capability to produce BW agents is alleged, not an actual offensive development program.

Following the failure of the United States to locate weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, however, the U.S. government soon toned down its claims with respect to Cuba's BW program. In late 2004, the New York Times reported that the U.S. intelligence community had concluded "that it is no longer clear that Cuba has an active, offensive bio-weapons program," although the U.S. continues to believe that Cuba possesses the capacity to pursue such a program should it wish to do so. In 2005, in an annual report to Congress (termed the Noncompliance Report, or NCR), the U.S. Department of State appeared to confirm the thrust of the story:

...there is a split view over whether Cuba maintains a BW effort...In a recent National Intelligence Estimate, the Intelligence Community unanimously held that it was unclear whether Cuba has an active biological warfare effort now, or even had one in the past. On the basis of the same reporting, the policy community believes that the compliance judgment of the June 2003 NCR that Cuba has "at least a limited, developmental offensive BW research and development effort" remains correct...However, all judge with high confidence that Cuba has the technical capability to pursue some aspects of offensive BW. [36]

The Cuban government has strongly denied the allegations that it has or is supporting illicit BW activities. Thus, after Alibek's work was published, a Cuban Foreign Ministry spokesperson called it a "ridiculous fantasy" that Cuba had ever developed biological weapons and stated that the country's biological research facilities were open to visits by foreign scientists. [37] After Bolton's statements, Castro himself publicly rebutted the charges, calling them "Olympic-size lies." [38] He pointed to Cuba's Law against Terrorism Acts, which states that "the person who manufactures, facilitates, sells, transports, sends, introduces in the country or keeps in his or her possession, under any form or in any place chemical or biological agents... is liable to sanctions of 10 to 30 years of imprisonment, life sentence or capital punishment." [39] Castro also asserted:

No one has ever produced a single piece of evidence that any program for developing nuclear, chemical or biological weapons has been set up in our country... it would be utterly stupid to behave in any other way... Any such program would lead the economy of any small country to bankruptcy. Cuba would never have been able to transport such weapons. Moreover, it would be a mistake to use them in battle against an enemy that has a thousand times more of those weapons and that would be only to [sic] happy to find an excuse to use them. [40]

The Cuban government reached out to an independent organization in an effort to mitigate concerns raised by the United States. Shortly after Castro's speech, the Center for Defense Information in Washington, DC was invited by the Cuban government to bring a group of experts to visit biological facilities of their choice. The expert team visited nine facilities deemed most significant in Cuban biotechnology: CIGB, Center for Molecular Immunology, National Center for Agricultural and Livestock Health, Laboratorios DAVIH, Pharmaceutical Biological Laboratories, Center for Marine Bioactive Substances, Special Processing Plant "La Fabriquita", Carlos J. Finlay Institute, and Pedro Kouri Institute of Tropical Medicine. The report detailing the results of this trip makes clear that in agreeing to come, the visit in "...no way constituted 'inspections,' a term that implies a certain degree of confrontation and an element of surprise... our visit would provide neither the 'smoking gun' nor the 'clean bill of health' that might put an end to the controversy." [41] The aforementioned report contained accounts written by each of the six experts, none of whom found anything suspicious.

The Cuban government has tried to establish its cooperation with the BWC and its intent to prohibit biological weapons and to prevent their proliferation. According to Notes submitted by Cuba in reference to UN Security Council Resolution 1540, "work and activities with biological agents, equipment and technology that may be relevant to the Biological Weapons Convention are carried out almost exclusively by the State sector. The cooperative sector, whose ownership regime is recognized expressly in the constitution and which operates Entomophagous and Entomopathogenic Research Centres, is the only exception." [42] Furthermore, a resolution submitted by the Cuban government in 2004 clearly prohibits in the national territory the conduct of activities related to the development, production, stockpiling, acquisition, retention, use or transfer of:

(a) Microbial or other biological agents or toxins, whatever their origin or method of production, of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes;

(b) Weapons, equipment or means of delivery designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed conflict. [43]

Despite these overtures by the Cuban government (as well as a lack of concrete evidence of a BW program), allegations continue to emerge. Most recently, in February 2007, a Cuban defector living in the United States claimed that Cuba was developing BW agents in a secret laboratory near Havana. [44] Roberto Ortega, a former army colonel who ran the Cuban military's medical services from 1984—1994, publicly described an underground facility named "Labor One," where scientists are allegedly developing several pathogenic agents for use in BW. Ortega's allegations are not supported by any evidence and apparently have drawn little U.S. government concern or public attention.

The issue of capability is not readily analyzed. On the one hand, Cuba undoubtedly possesses a strong capability in biotechnology, one that could be used for biological weapons acquisition should its leaders so decide. On the other hand, there is no evidence that capability has in fact been exploited to acquire biological weapons. In the unclassified arena, no solid information confirms Cuban development or ownership of biological weapons.

Sources:
[1] Cuba has also lodged several unofficial allegations of biological warfare against the United States, although they were not submitted for review through any international mechanisms. The exception to this occurred in October 1996, when Cuba accused the United States of having dispersed the insect Thrips palmi to damage its agriculture. A formal consultative meeting was held in August 1997, during which the delegates heard both sides present their views as to how the insect was introduced into Cuba. In the end, the consultative meeting's finding was in effect a non-finding — it was not possible for the delegates to "...reach a definitive conclusion with regard to the concerns raised by the Government of Cuba." [S.I. Soutar, Report to All State Parties to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention on the Results of the Formal Consultative Meeting of State Parties to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention held from 25-27 August 1997 (Geneva: United Kingdom Permanent Representation, 1997).]
[2] G.P. Kourí, M.G. Guzmán, and J.R. Bravo, "Hemorrhagic dengue in Cuba: History of an epidemic," Pan American Health Organization Bulletin, 1986, 20:24-30.
[3] Charles Cooper (ed), Technology and Innovation in the International Economy (Maastricht, Holland: Edward Elgar- United Nations University Press, 1994), 2.4.4.
[4] "Interferon," Cuba Biotechnology Company, www.cubabiotechnology.com. An alternative hypothesis is that interferon at the time was believed to be a potential cure for cancer, so Fidel Castro made the decision that Cuba should acquire it for its putative therapeutic value. See "How Castro's enthusiasm for biotech spurred vaccine development," Nature, 1999, www.nature.cm.
[5] Ibid.
[6] "Cuba: The Threat," GlobalSecurity.org.
[7] Cooper (ed), Technology and Innovation in the International Economy.
[8] "CRP-ICGEB Research Grants Awarded 1988-2009," ICGEB Web site, 13 August 2009, www.icgeb.trieste.it.
[9] Patricia Grogg, "Fewer Shots, Same Protection from Disease," Inter Press Service, 2 October 2001.
[10] Juan Armando Montes, "Prepared statement of Juan Armando Montes, Colonel, (retired), U.S. Army Special Forces & Foreign Area Officer (FAD), Latin America, President of the Cuban American Veterans Association, member of the Cuban Unity Broad Opposition Front, House Committee on International Relations, Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere," Federal News Service, 16 March 1985.
[11] Wolf Jr., C., Yeh, KC, Brunner Jr., E, Gurwitz ,A., Lawrence, M, The Costs of the Soviet Empire (RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, CA, 1983).
[12] Defense Intelligence Agency, in coordination with the Central Intelligence Agency, Department of State Bureau of Intelligence, National Security Agency, and the United States Southern Command Joint Intelligence Center, The Cuban Threat to US National Security, 6 May 1998, www.defenselink.mil.
[13] "Cuba's Biochemical Industry- Update," Chicago Tribune via www.xing.com and "How Castro's Enthusiasm for Biotech Spurred Vaccine Development," Nature, 1999, www.nature.cm.
[14] Ernesto Lopez, Ricardo Silva, Boris Acevedo, Jose A Buxado, Angel Aguilera & Luis Herrera, "Taking Stock of Cuban Biotech," Nature Biotechnology 25, no. 11 (2007), athena.abc.org.br.
[15] Jocelyn Kaiser, "Cuba's Billion-Dollar Biotech Gamble," Science 282, no. 5394 (1998): 1626-1628.
[16] "Cuban Biotechnology Working on New Projects to Fight Diseases," PoliticalAffairs.net, February 2009.
[17] Fidel Castro, "There will be weapons much more...(II)," Granma Internacional (internet version), 14 May 2002, www.granma.cu.
[18] "Iran, Cuba Discuss Cooperation in Biotechnology, Agriculture," BBC Monitoring, 18 January 2002.
[19] Dalia Acosta, "Tests to start on AIDS vaccine," Inter Press Service, 28 July 1996.
[20] Fidel Castro, "There will be weapons much more...(II)."
[21] "Iran Pharma Links, Higher Spending," Pharma Marketletter, 3 July 1995.
[22] "Iran-Cuba (Scheduled) Stalled Medicine Factory Is US's fault, Iranian Tells Castro," Financial Times, 9 May 2001, and "Cuba, Iran Seek to Eliminate Trade Barriers," BNET, October 2007, findarticles.com.
[23] "Call for International Cooperation in Biotechnology," IPR Strategic Business Information Database, 29 August 2000.
[24] "Cuba, China Strengthen Biotech Co-op," Noticias de Cuba, 8 September 2009, www.cubasi.cu.
[25] "China, Cuba Scientific Officials Meet," Solvision, 13 October 2009, www.solvision.co.cu.
[26] "China, Cuba Enhance Public Health Co-op," Cuban Daily News, 20 December 2007, www.cubaheadlines.com.
[27] Defense Intelligence Agency, The Cuban Threat to U.S. National Security.
[28] U.S. Department of State, "Overview of State-Sponsored Terrorism," Patterns of Global Terrorism: 1999 Report, 2000, www.state.gov.
[29] Ken Alibek, with Stephen Handelman. Biohazard: The Chilling True Story of the Largest Covert Biological Weapons Program in the World -- Told from Inside by the Man Who Ran It (New York: Random House, 1999).
[30] Juan A. Tamayo, "U.S. Skeptical of Report on Cuban Biological Weapons," Miami Herald, 23 June 1999, pg. 4A.
[31] Manuel Cereijo, "Cuba: The Threat," Guaracabuya, 1999, www.globalsecurity.org.
[32] Manuel Cereijo, "Cuba's Bacteriological Warfare Efforts," Guaracabuya, 1998, www.globalsecurity.org.
[33] John Bolton, "Beyond the Axis of Evil: Additional Threats from Weapons of Mass Destruction," Heritage Lectures 743, the Heritage Foundation, 6 May 2002.
[34] Colin Powell on-camera interview, U.S. Department of State, Gander, Newfoundland, 13 May 2002.
[35] "Cuba's Pursuit of Biological Weapons: Fact or Fiction?" Hearing of the Western Hemisphere, Peace Corps, and Narcotics Affairs Subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 5 June 2002 and John R. Bolton, "The U.S. Position on the Biological Weapons Convention: Combating the BW Threat," Speech presented on 27 August 2002, at the Tokyo American Center, Tokyo, Japan, www.state.gov.
[36] U.S. Department of State, Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments, August 2005, pp. 19-20.
[37] "Cuba Ridicules Report It Has Biological Arms," Reuters, 24 June 1999, www.globalsecurity.org.
[38] Cubavision, May 10, 2002, in "Castro Refutes US John Bolton's Statements on Biological Warfare," FBIS LAP20020511000019, 10 May 2002.
[39] Cubavision, May 10, 2002, in "Castro Refutes US John Bolton's Statements on Biological Warfare," FBIS LAP20020511000019, 10 May 2002.
[40] Cubavision, May 10, 2002, in "Castro Refutes US John Bolton's Statements on Biological Warfare," FBIS LAP20020511000019, 10 May 2002.
[41] Glenn Baker (ed.), Cuban Biotechnology: A First Hand Report (Washington, DC: Center for Defense Information, 2003).
[42] "Note verbale dated 28 October 2004 from the Permanent Mission of Cuba to the United Nations addressed to the Chairman of the Committee," United Nations Security Council, www.nti.org.
[43] "Note verbale dated 28 October 2004 from the Permanent Mission of Cuba to the United Nations addressed to the Chairman of the Committee," United Nations Security Council, www.nti.org.
[44] Frances Robles, "Ex-Insider: Cuba Has Bioweapons," Miami Herald, 28 February 2007.

Get the Facts on Cuba
  • 1963 Cuban Missile Crisis a key Cold War confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union
  • Possesses a well-developed biotechnology sector with dual-use capabilities
  • No evidence to suggest Cuba possesses or is pursuing ballistic missiles

This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents. Copyright 2017.