Cuba forced to sell technology
BY NANCY SAN MARTIN
WASHINGTON -- A deteriorating economy has forced Cuba to place its once prestigious biotechnology into the hands of nations that could be using science intended to save lives as a means to destroy it, according to a Cuban scientist now living in the United States.
The biotechnology used to manufacture three lifesaving medical products -- and which could be used to produce biochemical weapons -- has been sold to Iran, one of seven nations on the State Department's list of states that sponsor terrorism, the scientist said, calling the sale ``profoundly disturbing.''
José de la Fuente, the former director of research and development at the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB) in Havana, made the disclosure in this month's issue of the journal Nature Biotechnology.
SOLD TO IRAN
De la Fuente said that between 1995 and 1998, Cuba sold Iran the production technology for a recombinant hepatitis B vaccine; an interferon used for the treatment of some viral diseases and various types of cancer, and streptokinase, used to treat heart attacks and other thrombolytic disorders.
But de la Fuente and other scientists say the same technology
could also be used to produce lethal agents to use as biochemical weapons
-- like anthrax bacteria or
smallpox virus. Many steps in the fermentation process that produces vaccines and other medicines are similar to the one used to manufacture biochemical weapons.
``Many technologies that are used to make medications are the same technologies that could be used for harmful intent,'' said Amy Smithson, a chemical and biological weapons expert at Henry Stimson Center in Washington. ``The fermenters are the same.''
De la Fuente fears that's exactly what Iran intends to do. ``No one,'' he wrote in the journal article, ``believes that Iran is interested in these technologies for the purpose of protecting all the children in the Middle East from hepatitis, or treating their people with cheap streptokinase when they suffer sudden cardiac arrest . . .
``The sale to Iran of the production technology for three of the CIGB's most significant accomplishments . . . is profoundly disturbing to many of us who gave so much time and effort to the development of an economically viable but essentially altruistic biotechnology in our country.''
His revelation comes at the same time the FBI is investigating the possibility that man-made anthrax bacteria was used to poison employees at a South Florida publishing company, and as experts nervously debate the possibility of biochemical assaults in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Evidence in the Sept. 11 investigation has led investigators to crop dusters and unlawfully obtained licenses to drive trucks hauling hazardous material.
De la Fuente, who fled Cuba by boat in 1999, said that although he has no reason to think that Cuba's sale of the technology to Iran was malicious, the outcome could be.
``This technology could be used for the purpose of producing bioweapons and other toxins that could be used in bioterrorist attacks,'' said de la Fuente, now a faculty member at Oklahoma State University.
The reason for the sale, he said, was simple: money, Cuba's ``desperate need for hard currency.''
``I cannot in any way confirm the use of this technology for anything other than [vaccines]. But the possibility exists,'' he said. ``My worry is not that Cuba actually sold the technology, but what can be done once they [Iran] have the technology.''
Officials at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington dismissed
de la Fuente's assertion, claiming that having been the target of chemical
warfare, Cuba abhors such
tactics. Over the years, Cuba has blamed illnesses, deaths and damage to agricultural crops to chemical attacks launched by enemies in Miami.
``If any country has suffered from biological warfare, it is Cuba,'' said Luis Fernández, a spokesman.
Fernández acknowledged that Cuba has sold pharmaceutical products to a number of countries, but he said he could not confirm if Iran has purchased Cuban-developed biotechnology used to make medications to combat illnesses such as hepatitis B.
But he denied roundly that any Cuban product could be used for biological warfare. ``Cuba has never produced anything that is harmful, nor will it ever, nor does it need to,'' Fernández said. ``People are looking for ghosts that don't exist.''
De la Fuente said the issue is not whether Cuba is making biological weapons -- there is no credible evidence of that -- but that the biotechnology with such a capability exists and is on the market.
Smithson noted that Cuba ``has never appeared on any public list of countries with the capability to make biological weapons.''
But she agreed with de la Fuente's assertion that technology used to make medications are the same technologies that could be used for harmful intent.
``That's the global truth,'' she said.
The close relationship between Cuba and Iran became evident in May when President Fidel Castro went on a tour to the Middle East and Asia that included visits to Iran, Syria, Algeria and Malaysia. At the time, Castro said: ``Iran and Cuba, in cooperation with each other, can bring America to its knees.''
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Castro has been vocal in condemning terrorist acts, though he has opposed military retaliation.
Meanwhile, a national campaign is under way to remove Cuba from the State Department's list of terrorist nations. The campaign, which started with 16 signatures from policy groups stretching from Miami to San Francisco, continues to gain support, said Anya Landau of the Center for International Policy in Washington.
Castro's links to terrorism are also the source for a recently published paper at the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies.
Among Castro's contributions, according to the UM report: support for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the Basque separatist movement from Spain known as ETA, the Irish Republican Army and several 1960s- and 1970s-era American radical groups accused of killing police officers and bombing public buildings.
``Cuba's geographical location, Castro's continuous connections with these groups and states and the harboring of terrorists in Havana creates a dynamic that requires vigilance and alertness,'' writes Jaime Suchlicki, director of the institute.
Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., during a recent visit with The Herald's editorial board, said Cuba ``clearly has the capability of producing chemical and biological ingredients that could become weapons of mass destruction.''
But whether Cuban scientists are in fact facilitating such efforts,
Graham said, is unknown in part because the international inspection agencies
have not been given
access to facilities.
``The Cubans say that's a matter of national sovereignty and that `we are not using them for any inappropriate purpose,' '' Graham said, adding: ``Nobody, at least nobody that I'm aware of in the United States, feels that we know what Cuba's doing.''