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– Larry Weiler
Former U.S.-Russian arms control negotiator
August 7, 2018
U.S. Says Cuba Has Limited Germ Weapons Effort
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June 2002

By Seth Brugger

On May 6, a senior U.S. official charged Cuba with pursuing biological weapons capabilities and said that Havana may be aiding other states conducting similar endeavors—activities that would contravene Cuba’s obligations under the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).

Addressing the private Heritage Foundation on weapons of mass destruction threats, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton said, “For four decades, Cuba has maintained a well-developed and sophisticated biomedical industry, supported until 1990 by the Soviet Union…. Analysts and Cuban defectors have long cast suspicion on the activities conducted in these biomedical facilities. Here is what we now know: The United States believes that Cuba has at least a limited, offensive biological warfare research and development effort.”

Bolton also said that Cuba has given dual-use biotechnology to other “rogue states” and that Washington fears that this technology could support biological weapons programs in those states. Bolton did not say which countries the United States believes Cuba has aided but mentioned that Cuban President Fidel Castro visited Iran, Syria, and Libya last year.

The undersecretary called on Cuba to halt its biological weapons-related cooperation with rogue states and to fully adhere to the Biological Weapons Convention, which Havana ratified in April 1972 and which outlaws offensive biological weapons development and transfers.

Bolton’s speech came two weeks before a new Bush initiative that challenged the Cuban government to carry out sweeping political and economic reforms and followed a November statement in which the undersecretary fingered other countries for violating the BWC.

Bolton’s statement was largely regarded as a new accusation, but it did not actually break new ground, as it closely mirrored mid-March testimony given by a senior State Department intelligence official before a Senate committee. That testimony appears to be the first time such a statement was publicly made by a U.S. official about Cuba’s biological weapons capabilities.

Speaking May 10 on Cuban television, Castro dismissed Bolton’s charges as a “treacherous” lie and said that weapons of mass destruction programs would ruin the economy of a small nation, such as Cuba. Two days later, Castro offered former President Jimmy Carter, who was in Havana on a private visit, as well as any specialist Carter might choose, complete access to any Cuban scientific research center.

During a May 13 visit to the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in Havana, Carter said that he had asked Bush administration officials before his trip about Cuban ties to terrorists and had been told Cuba had not transferred information abroad that could be used for “terrorist purposes.” Carter also expressed doubt that Cuba is providing Libya or Iran with “terrorist information.”

Although Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said he has not seen the intelligence that led to Bolton’s remarks, other senior administration officials have stood by the undersecretary and further clarified the U.S. position. Speaking to the press May 14, Secretary of State Colin Powell said, “As Undersecretary 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 and the capability to conduct such research.”

Speaking a day earlier on “The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer,” national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said, “There is plenty of reasons to be very concerned about what the Cubans are doing in this area.” She also questioned the usefulness of conducting on-site inspections to resolve concerns about biological weapons development, saying, “I will say that you can’t show someone a biotech lab and be assured that they’re not creating weapons of mass destruction. That’s not how biological weapons work. They’re actually very easy to conceal.”

On May 16, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher also questioned the usefulness of inspections, saying they could not add more than “limited value in resolving compliance concerns.” Boucher said that once Cuba complies with the BWC, it could demonstrate its compliance by opening its laboratories up and conducting exchanges with scientists and other people “in the field.”