Fidel Castro's Deadly Secret

Article excerpt

The Cuban dictator is devoting a lot of his destitute island nation's budget to secretive biological- and chemical-weapons research. Will he share his germ arsenal with terrorists?

Not far from Havana's picturesque harbor, where ogling tourists and curvaceous prostitutes ply Cuba's only thriving form of free trade, stands the Luis Diaz Soto Naval Hospital, flanked by a newly built concrete laboratory complex about 400 feet long by 300 feet wide. Inside the compound, along a 165-foot acid-resistant work table with built-in circuit breakers, military biotechnicians reportedly experiment on cadavers, hospital patients and live animals with anthrax, brucellosis, equine encephalitis, dengue fever, hepatitis, tetanus and a variety of other bacterial agents.

Five chemical- and biological-weapons plants operate throughout the island, according to documents smuggled out of Cuba and made available to Insight by Alvaro Prendes, a former Cuban air force colonel who now is the Miami-based spokesman for the Union of Liberated Soldiers and Officers, a clandestine pro-democracy movement within Cuba's security services.

The credibility of the smuggled documents is enhanced by a recent classified Pentagon analysis. Also, these facilities have not been on the itinerary of such visiting dignitaries as retired Marine Gen. John Sheehan, the recently passed-over candidate for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who enthusiastically embraced normalizing relations with Havana following a recent round of junketing with Castro.

Pentagon, State Department and congressional sources also point to continuing Cuban support for international terrorism and drug trafficking. They tell Insight that, according to the CIA, Russian specialists still operate the electronic listening station at Lourdes on the northeast tip of the island which taps into U.S. communications. During the Persian Gulf War, this station forwarded strategic information to Iraq.

Reports smuggled out this year by dissident Cuban military officers and scientists are believed to be among the factors prompting Defense Secretary William Cohen to revise a Pentagon report sent to Congress last April which decertified Cuba as a threat to U.S. national security. The revised report, still classified but made available to an Insight reporter, states: "Cuba's air force is in disrepair and much of the regular army is demobilized, but the Castro government retains the potential to pose unconventional threats. It has the infrastructure which can be adapted to the production of chem-bio weapons."

A classified annex to the Pentagon's final report to Congress further warns: "According to sources within Cuba, at least one research site is run and funded by the Cuban military to work on the development of offensive and defensive biological weapons."

Why does the president ignore this? "Clinton just wants to avoid another front," says Ernesto Betancourt, former director of Radio Marti, a U.S. government broadcasting service. Betancourt believes that the administration is terrified of provoking a confrontation which could lead to another Cuban wave of refugees. "While maintaining the economic embargo to placate Cuban-American voters, Clinton desperately avoids making waves with Castro," Betancourt adds.

"The administration has been asleep at the switch on China, India and very possibly now on Cuba," Chairman Dan Burton of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee tells Insight. "They are simply not on the ball." Moreover, former U.S. ambassador to Colombia Lewis Tambs has the same concern: "If we cannot prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in our backyard, how can we hope to do so halfway around the world?"

Although Clinton has been sufficiently concerned about the general threat of chemical and biological terrorism triggering an internal domestic crisis by setting up a series of new response measures -- including expanded storage of antidotes, stepped-up inoculations of military personnel and a call for $250 million to train first-responder teams at state and local levels -- he appears to be taking no action against Castro. …