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Analysts Warn of Cuba's Bio-Weapons Potential

The U.S. campaign against international terrorism has focused chiefly on South Asia and the Middle East. But some analysts say U.S. officials also should pay attention to a nation much closer to home, Cuba, one of the nations on the U.S. State Department list of countries that sponsor terrorism. A conference at the University of Miami examined Cuba's potential for producing biological weapons.

Eugene Pons is a coordinator of the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban Studies. He says that as the United States wages its war on terrorism, it should keep a close eye on Cuban President Fidel Castro. "Castro's connection with terrorism is amply documented," he says. "Clearly, a threat exists from Cuba and its ties with Middle Eastern countries. The possibility of biological terrorism is a major concern."

Mr. Pons points out that in the past year, Mr. Castro has visited Libya, Syria, and Iran, all on the U.S. list of nations that sponsor terrorism. In Tehran, news reports quoted the Cuban leader as saying "Iran and Cuba, in cooperation with each other, can bring America to its knees."

Eugene Pons says Cuba began developing a biotechnology program in the 1980s with the support of its then ally, the former-Soviet Union, and continues to devote significant resources to the effort. "In total, there are 11 biochemical plants operating in Cuba, half of which are believed to serve military purposes," he says. Castro has invested heavily in biotechnology, developing an infrastructure capable of manufacturing the anthrax bacteria and smallpox virus."

Cuba has long touted its healthcare and biotechnology sectors as prime successes of the communist revolution. Cuba routinely dispatches physicians to other Latin American nations in the wake of natural disasters, and Cuban scientists even developed a prototypal AIDS vaccine in the 1990s.

But just what capability does Cuba possess to engineer and produce harmful microorganisms?

Jose de la Fuente directed research and development at Cuba's Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology from 1991 to 1998, when he left the island-nation. Mr. de la Fuente says Cuba's biotech could easily produce, for example, a highly-virulent strain of anthrax. "Cuba has the capability of altering microorganisms, that is what genetic engineering does. And that knowledge could be used for the modification of anthrax or any other bacteria or virus," he says. "The country also has the capability of producing those microorganisms, using the same fermentors that are now used for the production of vaccines and pharmaceutical products."

But Mr. de la Fuente is quick to add, however, that while in Cuba, he never took part in or witnessed any projects to develop biological agents that could be used as weapons, at least not at the civilian facilities he directed. "As far as I know, there is no development in Cuba of biological weapons, at least not in the biotechnology sector which is the sector I was familiar with," he says. "I cannot comment, because I do not know, if the military has something. But, again, the capability is there."

At his Senate confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Colin Powell said he does not regard Cuba as a threat to America's national security. He said that assessment would change, however, if Cuba sought to develop any weapons of mass destruction.