Defector says Cuba is developing biological weapons
By Frances Robles
MIAMI - The former chief of Cuba's military medical services is calling
for international weapons inspections of a secret underground lab near
Havana, where he says the government is creating biological warfare
agents like the plague, botulism and yellow fever.
Roberto Ortega, a former army colonel who ran the military's medical
services from 1984 to 1994, defected in 2003 and now lives in South Florida.
After living here quietly for four years, this week Ortega went on the
Spanish language media circuit to denounce what he claims is an advanced
offensive biological warfare weapons program. He spoke Tuesday night at
the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies
where one angry heckler stormed out accusing him of deliberately sowing
fear among Cuban exiles.
"They can develop viruses and bacteria and dangerous sicknesses that are
currently unknown and difficult to diagnose," Ortega told The Miami
Herald. "They don't need missiles or troops. They need four agents, like
the people from al-Qaida or the Taliban, who contaminate water, air
conditioning or heating systems."
He said Cuba was ready to use the biological agents "to blackmail the
United States in case of an international incident" such as the threat
of a U.S. invasion.
The Cuban government has denied such programs exist, but if Ortega's
allegations are true Washington could face the prospect of an enemy
nation 90 miles away with the capability of launching germ attacks.
Ortega said he told the CIA nearly two years ago about an underground
Cuban facility southwest of Havana. The maximum security lab dubbed
"Labor One" has an above-ground civilian cover and employs dozens of
scientists, he said.
But in the underground facility scientists reproduced and stockpiled
deadly germs and bacterias collected in Africa, he added.
He visited the lab in 1992 when he accompanied a high-level Russian
military delegation, he said.
"I saw it," Ortega said. "I lived it."
Ortega is believed to be the first defector with details of such an
alleged biological warfare facility, said University of Miami Prof.
Manuel Cereijo, who studies Cuba's biotechnology and terrorism issues.
Ortega said he has come forward now, because he did not see the CIA
taking public action on his information. The CIA and the U.S. State
Department declined to comment.
"He talks about a place I never heard about," Cereijo said. "There are
many other places where there exists the capacity to develop bioweapons.
That doesn't mean they are doing that. Only a person like him would know."
Cuba's advanced biotechnology industry is well known, having produced
vaccines for hepatitis and meningitis B and exported them to dozens of
countries around the world.
In 2002, John Bolton, then a top U.S. State Department official for arms
control, said that Cuba "has at least a limited offensive biological
warfare research and development effort."
In a report last year, the State Department acknowledged that analysts
were divided on the issue of whether Cuba has such a program. Experts
also argue that the U.S. government is unlikely to have high-level spies
in Cuban feeding it information on what must be, if it exists, a highly
Ken Alibek, former deputy director of the Soviet Union's bioweapons
program, said Russian scientists always suspected the Cubans were
developing a biological warfare program, but said he doubts that any
Soviet military delegation would have been invited to visit it.
"This kind of work was so secretive," said Alibek, who defected in the
early 90s. "These kinds of programs are never shared."
"If you ask whether the Cubans are capable, I'd say easily," he told The
Miami Herald in a telephone interview from Virginia. "Are they doing it?
I can tell you when I was involved in the late 80s, we suspected so."